Nov 182012

In the 2012 election U.S. women reached a historical milestone, winning a record number of seats, an all-women’s delegation, and a majority-minority Democratic caucus. Celebrations aside, let’s focus on how this achievement compares to the rest of the world.

ANALYS Julia Hellwege

History has been made in the U.S. Congress. While the minority vote was crucial in the presidential race (see my recent analysis), the women’s vote proved especially decisive in the congressional and state level races. Over the past year of campaigning we heard from several male Republican candidates  who attacked women on reproductive issues, including birth control, abortion, and rape, even causing some to cry that Republicans were waging a war on women. Women voters responded and each one of these candidates were defeated, and in some cases by women candidates.

Women were elected in large numbers around the country, reaching a new record of about 77 women in the House of Representatives and 20 women in the Senate. In the last congresses there was concern that women representation had reach its peak, but this election proved that the proverbial glass-ceiling set in 2006 could be broken. This was also evident in the high number of women firsts in this year’s election, including the first Hindu woman, first openly gay senator, the first Asian American senator, and the first all-woman delegation (from New Hampshire). All of this is of course tremendously exciting news, any time previously underrepresented groups are making gains in political power there is reason for celebration, but let’s put this information into perspective.

How does the U.S. stack up to the rest of the world? Given that women make up approximately 50% of the population worldwide, and yet have been systematically underrepresented in nearly every modern state society, comparisons are easy to make. In only one country have women been able to achieve actual parity in a national legislature, that country is Rwanda. And in this case the female majority was largely artificially created by very strict gender quotas. Generally speaking, however, as might be expected, there is a rather clear correlation between level of democracy and the number of women elected to national legislatures. And while most Americans will certainly tell you that the U.S. is (one of) the most democratic state(s) in the world; the reality is that the United States averages right around 17.7% female representatives in the House of Representatives (20% in the Senate).


This number means that the U.S. will rank about number 76th of 144, which is up from 81st last year (according to the Interparliamentary Union). This fits the U.S. comfortably in company like the United Arab Emirates and Madagascar, which are clearly less institutionally democratic than the United States. In comparison all the Nordic countries have averages around 40% women in their national parliaments. Clearly the U.S. still has work left to reach parity. It’s not my meaning here to de-emphasize the gains made in U.S. women’s politics, but only to put this into perspective. I additionally wish to both impress upon Americans the importance of electing more women into office, and also to highlight that despite the comparatively poor numbers, there is still reason to celebrate U.S. numbers because of something that is often missed by many European analysts; the European institutional comparative advantage.

Why are the Nordic countries electing so many more women? And can the U.S. get there?

Surely there is reason to believe that Scandinavians are culturally more progressive in terms of women’s parity in the political sphere; however this I believe is a bit overly naïve and too much of a simplistic answer. In these states women have also largely benefited from voluntary gender quotas, something that is not institutionally possible in the United States. In the United States voters elect individual candidates rather than parties, so while in proportional representation systems, like much of Europe, having a party field 30% female candidates is plausible, in the U.S. where only one person is elected in each district it becomes nearly impossible to mandate that the parties one candidate be  of a certain gender.

The Nordic countries were among the first in the world to experiment with gender quotas, and parties have traditionally used them on a purely voluntary basis (for further information see from Stockholm University). Generally speaking, these voluntary quotas are barely considered today since having at least 30% women as candidates is common practice. Arguably, the Nordic countries have reached a point where the gender of the candidates need not be prioritized as heavily as in the United States, instead Nordic voters are much more free to vote based on ideology.

The truth is that institutionally speaking the U.S. should not be able to be as representative as most of Europe. As such, the fact that women are continuously making strides is the U.S. should be celebrated. These achievements can be attributed to a multitude of reasons of course. One is the relentless mobilization of women candidates by organizations aimed specifically at this purpose. Ironically, as mentioned above, women candidates received much of the support by women who were negatively mobilized by the republican attack on women.

Hopefully this election also signals a shift in American public opinion, and perhaps even culture that is placing higher value on women in politics. Given the new demographics in the United States, and particularly in the American electorate, such a shift is entirely possible, and if this is the case perhaps the U.S. will continue to climb the rankings ladder until one day when we can start focusing on actual policy position, and not have to worry about whether anyone or any group will be systematically underrepresented. Reaching parity should be a priority around the world, only then can we actually start to talk meaningfully about politics.