"Year of the Woman" in the United States
In 1992 the United States elected four new women to the United States Senate, bringing the total number of women in the chamber to six. In the House of Representatives, the total went from 28 to 47– the largest number of women elected to the House during a single election. That election came after a turbulent campaign season punctuated by rumors of an extramarital affair by presidential candidate Bill Clinton, and the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas after sexual harassment allegations by Anita Hill. The women of America felt ignored, sidelined, and overlooked. Then they did something about it.
People are already drawing comparisons between the 1992 “Year of the Woman” and the upcoming 2018 midterms. These midterms will follow the rise of the first female presidential nominee for a major political party. They will follow a year in which the #MeToo movement has toppled giants from the media industry to the halls of Congress. And they will follow record-breaking waves of women stepping up to have their voices heard in Washington and across the world.
But what happened in the meantime? Do we need a second “Year of the Woman?”
Since the 1992 elections, progress for women in government, in both elected and appointed positions, has noticeably stalled. According to the Leadership Index published by the Women in Public Service Project, women are entering the workforce, and more specifically the public service sector workforce, in equal or almost equal numbers as men. However, they do not experience the same progression and momentum in their careers as their male colleagues.
For example, while 43 percent of the civil service is made up of women, only 34% of women hold decision-making positions within this sector. Under the current administration, there are only three female members of the cabinet (education, transportation, and homeland security), and out of 42 nominees for State Attorney General, only one is a woman. In Congress, while there are 20 women in the Senate, only two chair Committees. The numbers are similar in the House of Representatives: although there are 83 women to choose from, only two chair committees.
For 2018 to be the advent of a new era of women in government, changes are needed beyond just the polls. Women need to be promoted and nominated to higher positions - and bring other women with them. We need to see more women chiefs-of-staff. More women chairing committees. More women as Cabinet Secretaries– and not just secretaries of health or education. And maybe someday, a woman President.
As Senator Barbara Mikulski said 26 years ago, “calling 1992 the ‘year of the woman’ makes it sound like the ‘year of the caribou’ or ‘year of the asparagus.’ We’re not a fad, a fancy, or a year.” This is a movement that has been brewing for decades– and I hope the midterms are a milestone, not the finish line.