The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Diana B. Carlin is professor emerita of communication at Saint Louis University and is a retired professor of Communication Studies at the University of Kansas.
Since 1960, when Sirimavo Bandaranaike from Sri Lanka (Ceylon) became the first woman prime minister, more than 150 women from 58 countries have held the title of president or prime minister. As we know, the United States is not on the list.
On Nov. 3, voters in the U.S. will decide if a woman comes one step closer with the election of the first female vice president after previous attempts by Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Sarah Palin in 2008.
The 2020 election with a woman vice presidential candidate and six women Congressional candidates in Kansas occurs during the 19th Amendment’s 100th anniversary celebration.
However, the 19th Amendment’s celebration often overlooks the fact that some women were denied the vote until as recently as the 1960s.
Native American, Chinese and South Asian women were legally prohibited, as were many African-American women, through state voter suppression. For women who were either birthright or naturalized citizens but were married to non-citizens (including both of my grandmothers), the 1907 Expatriation Act stripped them of citizenship until the law’s repeal in 1922. Their citizenship was not automatically restored but had to be applied for through naturalization. Male citizens did not suffer the same fate, however.
The battle for women’s rights and political parity in the United States and worldwide is ongoing, even with the impressive statistics that began this piece.
Multiple global studies indicate that even in the 21st century women face structural, cultural or attitudinal barriers to holding office. Among them are access to funds, perceptions that women can’t win, family and societal norms that woman’s place is in the home, uneven and sexist media coverage, claims that women don’t understand economics or foreign policy, and stereotypes that women only care about “women’s issues.”
Women in the United States may experience it to a lesser degree than women in newer democracies or more conservative countries, but sexist media treatment and attacks from opponents are still common. Kamala Harris was called a “monster” by a sitting president and her morals were called into question with “JOE and the HOE Vote No” T-shirts. Elizabeth Warren was criticized for her “shrill” voice. Previously, Sarah Palin was seen by some as unfit for the vice presidency because she had young children.
In the past, I worked with Kansas women politicians to hone their communication skills and have researched and written about sexist media coverage and women candidates’ barriers. More recently, I worked with women political candidates and office holders in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Egypt, and Kuwait to help them develop political communication skills.
As I prepared to deliver these programs, I researched government structure and culture. These were countries with parliamentary governments and most had multi-party systems. Except for Sri Lanka, they had relatively short histories of women’s political involvement.
As I listened to women’s reasons for running and their challenges, it became obvious that even with the challenges U.S. women face, American women have not lived through what these women had — the Arab spring, civil war that saw their children stolen to serve as soldiers, pride killings by family members and excessive domestic violence, military rule with human rights violations, outside aggression ending in the first Gulf War, and extensive poverty.
Traditional women’s issues resembling the 1848 Declaration of Sentiments that propelled the U.S. suffrage movement dominated their agendas.
In working with the women, I developed the mantra that “women’s issues are everyone’s issues, and all issues are women’s issues.” That strategy was designed to gain support from males in party leadership who determine the list for legislative seats or male colleagues in the parliament. It also helped the women realize that they needed to address issues outside their comfort zones because agriculture, environmental issues, energy and foreign policy affect their families. They shared strategies for gaining family members’ support and how to find that elusive “life balance.”
Many of the women complained about women’s slow gains and looked to me for answers. While it was not a positive commentary on my own country, I pointed out that 58 countries achieved something the U.S. has not and that it was only recently that women held more than 20% of congressional seats.
My message was to keep taking the steps they were taking because one woman’s success opens the door for others. We shall see if that is the case in the United States, where 100 years of women’s political activism results in a woman a heartbeat away from the presidency or if more doors need to open.
Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.