Women’s Primary Problem


| November-December 2008


Despite the historic candidacies of Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton, when it comes to women in government, the United States’ record is reliably embarrassing. In a 2008 ranking of female representation in the world’s legislatures, the country sank two spots, to 69th—well behind Cuba, Nepal, Kyrgyzstan, and that bastion of representative democracy, Iraq. Nearly 90 years after American women got the right to vote, they hold only about 16 percent of congressional seats.

Who’s keeping the ladies down? Not the voters, reports the American Prospect (July-Aug. 2008). The problem is that the primaries remain a boys’ club, even though, according to a 2008 study published in the Journal of Politics, voters are just as likely to pull the lever for a woman as for a man. In short, the system functions like an old-fashioned cotillion: Someone has to ask you to dance. And women, according to a 2005 Citizen Political Ambition Study, are a third less likely than men to catch the eye of party recruiters. Since roundabout attempts to right the gender imbalance through term limits and public campaign funding have foundered, the American Prospect suggests a simpler approach: Just get your party to ask more women to the show.