By Lanethea Mathews-Schultz
and Nicole Baltzer
Following remarks by two well-known political figures in defense of Hillary Clinton's struggling campaign, the nation has been thrust into a debate about the role of gender in American politics.
At a campaign event with Clinton, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright admonished young women for their lackluster support of the Democratic candidate by suggesting that there is "a special place in hell for women who don't help other women." At a separate event, second-wave feminist icon Gloria Steinem clumsily suggested that young women supporting Bernie Sanders were doing so in order to follow "boys."
Advisers to the Clinton campaign have sought to distance Clinton from these remarks, while national opinion pages have lambasted Albright and Steinem for articulating an oversimplified view of gender identity (see Frank Bruni's Feb. 10 New York Times column and Kathleen Parker's Feb. 9 piece in the Washington Post). Yet in the rush to dismiss Albright and Steinem as outdated, out-of-touch, "old," "reverse sexists," pundits have mostly missed a larger point about young women's political engagement.
It is certainly not the case, as some have claimed, that we no longer have to worry about how women compete in the political system. According to the Center for American Women in Politics, women hold just 19 percent of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and 20 percent of seats in the Senate. At the state level, women hold just 24 percent of legislative seats and six of 50 governorships. The United States, of course, has never had a female president, and this is increasingly a national embarrassment. (One hundred nations have had a female head of state to date; 22 do currently.) Given these statistics, it's no surprise that Albright and Steinem are frustrated.
Politics remains a man's game in part because few women make the decision to enter the political fray. With few female role models to inspire them, young women are among those least likely to participate in politics. A vicious cycle results: Fewer female officeholders leads to lower interest among young women, who as a result fail to be engaged in politics or to run for office themselves. Thus, low numbers of women in political office persist.
Previous high-profile female candidates seemed to hold promise of breaking this cycle. Geraldine Ferraro's historic bid for the vice presidency in 1984 and the 1992 "Year of the Woman" elections were associated with increased political interest and expressions of political ambition among young women. Yet in 2008 and now 2016, Hillary Clinton has struggled to generate similar levels of enthusiasm among female voters.
Why hasn't Clinton been able to inspire young women? In our view, Clinton's struggle has more to do with a polarized political system than declining commitment among young women to the goals of feminism.
A recent study with Mack Mariani (Xavier University) and Bryan Marshall (Miami University) analyzed young women's responses to Nancy Pelosi's 2007 ascent as the first female speaker of the House, Hillary Clinton's 2008 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, and Sarah Palin's vice presidential run. In each of these instances, we found that partisanship and political ideology mattered more in inspiring young women than the fact that Pelosi, Clinton, and Palin are female.
Something has changed. When Ferraro ran in 1984, both liberal and conservative young women were inspired to get involved in politics; in 2008, in contrast, only liberal women were inspired by Clinton's bid for the presidential nomination.
In our modern era of polarized politics, simply "being a woman" is not enough to inspire young women. Women have not been immune to the increasingly polarized environment in which campaigns and candidates compete for support. Ideology and party make up the dominant prism through which young women view candidates and align themselves on issues. Party and ideology matter, and that may go a long way toward explaining the Sanders campaign's surprising level of success attracting young female voters.
Never before in American history has the nation been so close to electing a woman president, a development with potentially profound symbolic importance for future generations of women. Whether or not young women support Clinton, however, is less important than the consequences of the 2016 election for young women's political engagement.
Early signs are positive. Turnout among young people is up in early-primary states, and a recent Pew Research Center report suggests that more young Americans are following 2016 election news than at any time since 2000.
The best route to increasing women's representation in politics - a goal that all feminists share - is inspiring young women to run.
Lanethea Mathews-Schultz is an associate professor of political science at Muhlenberg College. firstname.lastname@example.org