Growing up in the seventies, every smart, strong, spunky young woman I knew wanted to be Wonder Woman. Lynda Carter’s iconic television character was the only alternative girls of that era had to fairy tale princesses waiting to be rescued by a male hero. Fast forward to 2018. Wonder Woman is back in a stunning new version directed by Patty Jenkins, featuring real life army combat warrior and former law student Gal Gadot.
With the release of blockbuster movies such as The Black Panther, Coco, and A Wrinkle in Time, young women and people of color today have a dazzling array of heroes and heroines who look like them.
As we celebrate International Women’s Month, the hashtag #RepresentationMatters is trending on twitter. The Hollywood award shows were stolen by women dressed in black demanding an end to sexual harassment and “5050 by 2020” representation in the entertainment industry – from creative roles shows to executive boardrooms.
But what about young women who would rather be President than Super Hero? Where do they look for representation after the stunning defeat of the first female Presidential nominee of a major political party, Hillary Clinton, on November 8, 2016?
The political arena needs a #RepresentationMatters movement of its own.
- According to the World Economic Forum, U.S. ranked 96 of 144 countries on political empowerment, finishing right behind Pakistan.
- With Clinton’s defeat, the U.S. remains on the short list of developed countries that have never had a female head of state. Women and people of color are also sorely under-represented in Congress, federal executive appointments, and state elected positions.
- Let’s start at the top. President Trump’s White House is overwhelmingly white and male, with only five women and four minorities in the cabinet. Under Secretary of State Tillerson, diversity in the top echelons of the diplomatic corps has dwindled, and the bureaucracy of mid-level government officials has lost the gains it made under the Obama Administration.
- The 115th Congress has been touted as one of the most diverse in history, but it is still not representative of U.S. demographics. Women make up 51 percent of the U.S. population, but they occupy only 19 percent of seats in Congress.
- Nonwhites also account for 19 percent of Congress, compared with 38 percent of the population. The numbers are creeping slowly upward but not even close to approaching full representation.
- You might think that things would look brighter in state government, where many people make their entrance into politics. Yet only six of the nation’s 50 governors are women, and only 3 are non-white.
- Progress for women in state legislatures has been stalled at around 25 percent for more than a decade.
One bright spot in the story is the number of women getting out the vote and running for office in 2018. The leaders of the Women’s March launched “Power to the Polls” to get women and minorities energized for the 2018 elections. More than twice as many women are running for Congress in 2018 compared with 2016. There has been an exponential increase in calls to EMILY’s List, which recruits and supports female Democratic candidates. Though Democrats may be more energized, Republicans have also seen a surge in women running for Congress and governorships. BlackWomenInPolitics.com lists more than 375 active women of color running for federal and state office.
Of course, running for office is one thing. Getting elected is another. Let’s not forget that women helped elect Donald Trump, with 53 percent of white women voting Republican. Political scientists agree that voters are more likely to vote based on party than on gender. And having women in positions of power does not always lead to more gender friendly policies. Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is widely viewed by women’s rights activists as having turned back the clock on campus sexual assault by rescinding Title IX guidelines passed by the Obama Administration.
Yet electing more women and minorities to public office matters. Studies have shown that when female and minority voters see themselves represented in office, they become more politically engaged and empowered. Female and minority legislators also tend to sponsor and support distinctive kinds of legislation that matters to their constituents.
For example, Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) is largely credited with putting together a coalition to save the Affordable Care Act. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) and Kamala Harris (D-CA) have spoken out powerfully to protect Dreamers, and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) is a leading voice against workplace sexual harassment.
But the real reason #RepresentationMatters in politics is best viewed through the eyes of two-year-old Parker Curry, who was captured in a photo on twitter awestruck by the portrait of Michelle Obama at the National Portrait Gallery. Parker believes that Michelle Obama is a queen and says that she wants to grow up to be a queen, too. That is the kind of magic that happens when young girls of color see women who look like them represented in leadership positions.