Women and Political Systems Worldwide
Carrie N. Baker and Marcela Rodrigues-Sherley
In March 1964, two major events happened in the life of a 16-year-old Brazilian girl from Belo Horizonte: her country experienced a coup d’état that would lead to a twenty-one-year military dictatorship. She also started high school. Central State High School was no regular high school; it was the biggest hub for student activism in the country and the place where Dilma Rousseff would start her lifelong fight for democracy.
Rousseff joined the underground, guerrilla activism that challenged the military dictatorship. During a time when freedom of speech was nonexistent and organizing of any kind was prohibited, leftist activists defied these restrictions by organizing secret meetings, circulating clandestine bulletins, and taking over local radio stations to spread their message. Many activists caught challenging military rule were jailed, tortured, and assassinated.
In 1970 the military arrested Rousseff for “subversion,” then jailed and tortured her for three years. Prison guards interrogated Rousseff intensely for hours, trying to force her to reveal the names of other activists. They beat her with wooden paddles and wet ropes, and subjected her to electrical shocks. They used a slavery-era method of torture called pau de arara (“parrot’s perch” in English), where political prisoners were hung from an iron bar by their legs and arms, often while naked and combined with electrical shocks. While more than four hundred of Rousseff’s comrades “disappeared,” likely assassinated, she survived the dictatorship.
After being released from jail, she moved to Porto Alegre, where she married and had her only daughter. She studied economics at university and started participating in the country’s re-democratization process postdictatorship. She became the first woman to be head of Porto Alegre’s Department of Finance and the first woman to be head of Rio Grande do Sul’s Department of Mines and Energy. Rousseff introduced the first proposal of clean and sustainable energy to the state of Rio Grande do Sul. Later on, under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, she became Brazil’s Minister of Mines and Energy, creating the Luz Para Todos (“light for all”) Program, which brought electricity to more than 11 million people living in rural areas of Brazil. After her success, she was named Lula’s chief of staff.
In 2010, she succeeded Lula and became Brazil’s first woman president. Her main political goal was to reduce poverty and unemployment. In 2014, she was reelected. But in 2016 she was removed from office through a coup masked as an impeachment. The rightwing opposition accused her of corruption, but to this day she affirms that she has never committed any crime and has not broken the law or constitution. Since then, Brazil has been taken over by rightwing politicians whose leadership has rolled back years of left-leaning policies under Lula and Rousseff.
From armed struggle to the presidency, and from political prisoner to president, Rousseff has spent her entire life fighting for justice and continues to advocate for the protection of democracy. Dilma Rousseff fought from both outside of government and from within it to advance democracy and social justice in her country. As a woman, she broke barriers, but she also experienced gender biases that contributed ultimately to toppling her from power. Rousseff’s story illustrates many of the ideas we will discuss in this chapter—how women have fought for democracy and struggled to gain political rights, how they still experience misogyny and sexual double standards, and how they are finding creative ways to tackle the challenges women regularly face in politics.
Politics are the activities associated with the governance of a country or an organization, especially the debate or conflict among individuals, interest groups, or parties having or hoping to achieve power and leadership. People in power shape the distribution of resources in society, often favoring themselves and people like them. Powerful people often resist opening the doors to people traditionally excluded from power, fearing that to admit more people means they will lose power.
Political systems are the formal state institutions that make up governments, levy taxes, pass laws, and decide how to allocate resources. The state adopts laws to encourage some behaviors and prohibit others, and enforces these laws through police and militaries. The state is central to shaping major social institutions like the family, workplace, health care, and educational system.
A democracy is a political system that ensures basic civil rights, valid elections, and an independent media. Most countries today are democracies, but they exist along a spectrum from fully free to partly free. The independent watchdog organization Freedom House releases an annual Freedom in the World report, which tracks the political and social conditions citizens face in countries and territories across the world. They calculate a score for each country by considering various factors and then assigning a number out of 100, ranking each country “free,” “partly free,” or “not free.” Whereas democratization increased during and right after the Cold War, we are now seeing the rollback of democratic values and equal voting rights across the world. Between 2005 and 2018, the share of “not free” countries rose from 23 to 25 percent, while the share of “free” countries declined from 46 to 42 percent. The United States is considered “free” with a score of 86, but it ranks behind fifty-one of the eight-seven “free” countries that scored up to 100 (Repucci 2020).
Some countries are not democracies—they do not have elections and are run by a single ruler called a monarch (e.g., Brunei and Qatar). Other countries have elections, but voters have little or no real choice (e.g., Russia). An oligarchy is a form of government in which the ruling power belongs to a few people, a plutocracy is a government controlled by the wealthy, and an autocracy is a government in which one person has all the power.
Men have traditionally dominated politics and governments in many countries and have limited women’s access to political power. As democracies formed, men often blocked women from voting and barred them from holding public office, while at the same time subjecting them to the laws over which women had no say. Male dominance was justified with ideologies that associated women with the “private” feminized sphere of home and family, with men associated with the “public” masculinized world of politics and business. Men are often seen as strong leaders, whereas women are portrayed as weak, domestic, uninterested in politics, and/or unfit for leadership. Women of color, low-income women, transgender women, and young women are even more strongly sidelined. People in power have used these stories to justify women’s exclusion from political power and create barriers to women’s access to political leadership, especially for women of color. As women have sought a larger role in political institutions, they have had to challenge these old stories and tell new ones about women’s capacity for leadership and their right to fully participate in the governance of society.
by Laureal Williams
In 1887, 27-year-old Susanna Madora “Dora” Salter was living with her husband and her four young children in the town of Argonia, Kansas. Earlier that year, Kansas was one of the first states to grant women the right to vote in certain local elections, including the town of Argonia.
As a member of an established Quaker family, Dora was a member of the local temperance (anti-alcohol) league. With the recently granted right to vote, the league members made enforcement of prohibition a prime issue of the upcoming city election. They selected a ticket of male candidates whom they considered to be worthy of the town’s offices.
A group of local townsmen resented the intrusion into local politics of women and the temperance league. They decided to teach the league a lesson by drawing up a nearly identical slate of candidates, substituting Dora’s name as the mayoral candidate. They assumed that only women would vote for the slate; they thought if Dora got just the twenty female votes, the league would be exposed as marginal and idiotic and therefore unlikely to involve itself in future politics.
Because candidates did not have to file before election day, the slate was registered as a surprise, and ballots were printed with Dora’s name on them. On the morning of the election, officials were shocked to see her name on the ballot and sent a delegation to ask if she would accept the office if elected. She agreed to do so. Dora’s husband was angered when he discovered Dora’s name on the ballot. He was even more perturbed when he found that his wife had consented to serve if elected. But she was undeterred.
The “lesson” backfired, and the townspeople of Argonia voted for Dora in such numbers that she received a two-thirds majority, making her the first woman mayor in the United States. When the results were known, Dora’s husband quickly adjusted to being the husband of the mayor.
Dora’s one-year term as mayor was largely uneventful, although it was recognized nationally and internationally with both praise and ridicule. During that year of service, Mayor Salter gave birth to her fifth child.
In the fall of 1887, Dora was invited to speak at the Kansas Women’s Equal Suffrage Association’s convention. Appearing on the platform with the mayor were Susan B. Anthony, Rachael Foster Avery, the Rev. Anna Shaw, and Henry Blackwell, husband of Lucy Stone. When Susan B. Anthony met Dora, she exclaimed, “Why, you look just like any other woman, don’t you?”
Dora never pursued another political office and soon after moved with her family to Oklahoma. She lived to the age of 101, having been witness to a multitude of changes in the American political scene.
Despite these exclusions, women have always participated in and influenced political systems in both formal or informal ways, both from within those systems and from the outside. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, women waged campaigns across the globe for the right to vote and run for political office. After years of fighting for their rights, women can now vote and run for political office in most countries, but they are still significantly underrepresented in legislatures worldwide.
In addition to participation in formal political systems, women have participated in informal politics through organizing their communities and participating in social movements. Even before women won the right to vote in many countries, they formed organizations, raised money, spoke out on issues of importance to them, and had significant influence on public opinion and policy. For centuries, women have organized both within nations and transnationally to improve their lives and communities. For example, in the mid-twentieth century, women participated in and sometimes led anticolonial movements to free people in the Global South from European domination. Like Dilma Rousseff, women have led uprisings to free their countries from the grips of dictators. In the early twentieth-first century, women played a critical role in the Arab Spring, a series of antigovernment protests against autocratic rulers that spread across much of the Arab world. These are just a few of many examples of how women have led social and political change.
This chapter explores women’s participation in formal political systems and informal politics. The first part of the chapter focuses on formal political systems in democracies, including citizenship and voting, running for and winning political office, obstacles to representation, and strategies women have used to overcome these obstacles. This first part then addresses how women rule once they achieve political power. Do female presidents behave differently than male presidents? What about legislators? What is the impact of women in elective office on political outcomes? How has women’s participation in political systems influenced those systems? The second part of the chapter will explore how women outside of positions of formal political power have acted to influence established power systems, fight for their rights, and create social change.
Part I. Women in State Politics
Being a citizen of a particular country is a membership status that legally recognizes an individual as a national of such country. Citizenship is usually granted by birth or by descent line (e.g., those born in the United States or those born abroad to US citizen parents), though many countries allow people to become citizens through a naturalization process. Citizenship comes with a range of duties and rights. Some duties include paying taxes and following the law, while some rights include freedom of speech and political participation.
Historically, citizenship has been denied on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, and religion. In the United States, the Naturalization Act of 1790 defined a citizen as a “free white person of good character,” which excluded those of African, Asian, Latin American, and Native ancestry. Today, gender, race, ethnicity, and religion are not explicit determinants of one’s eligibility to citizenship; however, gendered and racist ideologies that disfavor women and people of color permeate the naturalization process. For example, men are more likely to be primary visa holders based on employment, while women are more likely to be admitted as dependent spouses. Some countries still have explicit exclusions in citizenship law. India’s Citizenship Amendment Bill, passed by the Indian Parliament in 2019, allows immigrants from certain countries to apply for Indian citizenship but excludes Muslims.
The right to vote is a central right of citizenship. As democracies formed across the world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, governments limited voting rights, often to male property owners. Movements to expand voting rights developed in many countries, including women’s suffrage movements, to fight for the right to vote. New Zealand was the first country to enfranchise women in 1893. The United States adopted the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution in 1920. Not until 2005 could women in Kuwait vote.
Even after formal barriers based on sex were removed, however, women still faced many other barriers based on their race, ethnicity, citizenship, language, and incarceration status. In South Africa, white women won the right to vote in 1930, but Black South African women could not vote until 1994, in the first general election after the fall of the apartheid system. In the United States, despite passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, Native American women did not gain citizenship until the Snyder Act in 1924 and then had to fight for the vote state by state. Federal policy barred immigrants of Asian descent from US citizenship and voting until 1952. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and violence blocked many African American women from voting until Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965. But in 2013, in Shelby County v. Holder, the US Supreme Court struck down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires certain states and local governments with histories of race discrimination to obtain federal preclearance before implementing any changes to their voting laws or practices. As a result, voter suppression in communities of color—including voter registration restrictions, voter intimidation, and strict voter identification laws—has increased significantly in recent years. Republicans in some states have purged African Americans from the voting rolls, closed polling locations in Black communities, and filed lawsuits to block counting votes.
The erosion of voting rights is not unique to the United States. For example, during Israel’s general elections in 2019, rightwing Likud activists installed hidden cameras in polling stations in Arab communities in order to intimidate Arab citizens and prevent them from voting (Azoulay and Alon 2019). In Pakistan the lack of gender-segregated polling stations prevent women from voting owing to social and cultural norms that dictate the way men and women are allowed to interact in public. Women who vote are nonetheless often harassed and chastised, which has resulted in Pakistan having one of the lowest rates of women’s voting turnout worldwide (Solijonov 2016).
Voting systems can also influence women’s participation in elections. Most voting systems are voluntary, but some are compulsory, requiring all citizens to vote. Canada and Spain, for instance, are among the 172 countries in the world that have voluntary voting laws. In these countries, people are not required to vote and participate in electoral processes. As a result, those who vote may not be a representative sample of the country’s population. Meanwhile, Australia and Peru are among the 27 countries that enforce compulsory voting, also known as mandatory voting. Compulsory voting is a duty with which all citizens must comply, otherwise they may suffer penalties such as paying a fine or being denied access to public services. According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), most countries in Latin America have compulsory voting (IDEA, n.d.).
Women in countries that enforce compulsory voting are more likely to vote, receive and seek information about elections, and participate in campaigns than women in countries where voting is voluntary (Córdova and Rangel 2017). When the law requires all citizens to participate in electoral politics, information about elections becomes more accessible to all, including those whose ability to participate in the electoral process has been historically denied. Thus the gender gap in voter participation and overall engagement in electoral politics is narrower in countries that enforce compulsory voting versus countries that hold voluntary voting laws.
Compulsory voting has similar effects on other historically disadvantaged populations. The gaps between young and elderly as well as between low- and high-income people are also narrower in countries that have compulsory voting laws than in countries with voluntary voting (Fowler 2013). But those who oppose compulsory voting argue that the higher turnout does not translate into a more representative vote because of vote-buying and electoral fraud (Kouba and Mysicka 2019).
Women’s voting rates have increased in many countries across the world over the past several decades. In India, for example, the number of women voting has increased significantly compared to men. Female voters for the first time outnumbered male voters in several states in India in the 2014 national elections (Kamra 2019). In the United States, women now comprise the majority of voters, casting close to 10 million more votes than men in the 2016 elections. That year, according to the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), 73.7 million women voted, whereas only 63.8 million men voted (CAWP 2019). Women also vote at higher rates than men: 63 percent of women who were eligible to vote cast their ballots in the 2016 election, whereas 59 percent of men did, reports the Pew Research Center. These differential gendered voting rates persist across racial groups (Igielnik 2020).
But in other areas of the world, women’s rates of voting lag behind men’s. Research on women’s voting participation in several sub-Saharan Africa countries, for example, shows that women were only about two-thirds as likely to vote as men, with the gender gap in voting varying widely across countries and time (Amoateng, Heaton, and Kalule-Sabiti 2014). Factors that discourage women from voting include household responsibilities, lack of education, lack of documentation, and health conditions like pregnancy. Women also experience higher rates of poverty and unemployment, which affect their abilities to afford transportation to registration and voting centers (ACE Electoral College Network 2013). The United Nations (UN) reports that women experience violence throughout the electoral process, including at home and during civic engagement activities, where they may be punished for expressing their political choices or intimidated into voting against their convictions, including through family voting (UN Women 2020).
In many countries, women on average vote differently from men—a phenomenon scholars describe as a gender gap, defined as the difference between the percentages of women and men who support a given candidate. In democracies across the world, as women gained the right to vote, they tended historically to vote more conservatively than men, which political scientists have attributed to greater religiosity, but today that trend is reversed. In recent decades, women have increasingly shifted leftward politically in postindustrial societies. Explanations for this shift include the increasing divorce rate, women’s increasing participation in the paid labor force, the persistent gender wage gap, and the fact that women are much more likely than men to be single parents caring for children. The resulting vulnerabilities make women more likely than men to depend on and value government-funded social programs supported by left-leaning political parties. Women are also more likely than men to work in government jobs as social workers and teachers, which explains their greater support for government social programs.
The gender gap is particularly evident in attitudes toward certain public policy issues. For example, women are more likely than men to prefer an active role for the government in providing a social safety net for those in need, including food assistance, health insurance, and welfare (Political Parity, n.d.). Women are also more likely than men to support regulations to protect the environment and laws that protect gay men and lesbians from discrimination. In contrast, women are less likely than men to support military interventions and gun rights (Lizotte 2020). Political scientist Jennifer M. Piscopo explains, “Ideas about appropriate gender roles mean that women and men have different lived experiences, which shape women’s awareness of problems and their preferences for solving them. For instance, women are more likely than men to perform caretaking roles—like raising children—and both historically and today they are more likely than men to want stronger healthcare, housing, education, childcare and anti-poverty programs. These differences shape the ‘women’s vote’” (Piscopo 2020b).
In the United States, gendered party affiliation and attitudes on political issues first emerged in the early 1980s, when the country took a neoliberal turn with the election of Ronald Reagan (Carroll and Fox 2018). These gender gaps have grown steadily since then. Today, women are more likely than men to be Democratic than Republican, especially women of color (Igielnik 2020). Since first emerging in the 1980s, the gender gap in presidential voting has ranged from 4 percent in 1992 to a high of 11 percent in 2016 (CAWP, n.d.). In 2020, 57 percent of women voted for Biden, but only 45 percent of men did; 42 percent of women voted for Trump, but 53 percent of men supported him. Women voted differently based on race: 55 percent of white women voted for Trump, whereas 30 percent of Latinas and Asian American women did, and only 9 percent of Black women supported Trump. Younger women were significantly more likely to vote for Biden than older women overall (Hall and Gal 2020; Yam 2020).
Challenges to Voting Access in the United States
by Karly Michon
The US elections of 2020 had some of the highest voter turnout and lowest voter fraud in recent history. In response, 2021 began with many states introducing and passing harmful and restrictive voting laws. In most cases these restrictions affect mail-in and early voting, which were the two biggest factors in the record 2020 voter turnout. Some of the most restrictive proposals were made in Georgia. Suggested measures include allowing people to challenge others about their voting qualifications and requiring more identification documents for mail-in voting. These types of laws are especially harmful to people that struggle to obtain identification, including the poor, elderly, and people of color.
Ideas for activism:
- Find an American Civil Liberties Union event near you, and bring a friend.
- Stay up to date on local voting policies in your area. Write letters, call, or email your representatives to make your voice heard on upcoming bills or important votes.
- Share knowledge and facts on voting issues to raise awareness and organize protests to harmful or restrictive voting laws.
- Volunteer for local candidates that support equal voting rights.
- Organize an informational event for your local community to educate people on local voting laws, upcoming legislation, and voting procedures to help people know their rights and be informed voters.
Research has revealed similar patterns in other areas of the world. Whereas European women tended to vote more for conservative parties in the 1970s, in most countries they are now more likely to support left-leaning parties. As in the United States, the driving force behind the emergence of a modern gender gap in Europe is increased levels of female labor participation (Giger 2009). Research shows that these patterns also hold true for Latin America. But there is no evidence that economic development provides an impetus for more equal levels of participation. Instead, the most important contextual factors are civil liberties and women’s presence among the visible political elite (Desposato and Norrander 2009). In African countries, women’s participation in the labor force—an indicator of economic empowerment—narrows the gender gap in the prioritization of infrastructure investment and access to clean water, while social vulnerability widens the gap on prioritizing infrastructure investment (Gottlieb, Grossman, and Robinson 2016).
In addition to voting, women engage in other forms of electoral activity, such as making financial contributions to campaigns, writing letters to elected representatives, engaging in campaign work, and joining political organizations. In many countries, women have formed their own organizations to pressure governments to protect women’s rights and increase sex equality, such as the All-China Democratic Women’s Federation, formed in 1949 (Hsiung, Jaschok, and Milwertz 2001), and the All India Democratic Women’s Association, established in 1981 (Armstrong 2015). In Japan, women mobilized traditional gender ideologies to create the Seikatsu Club and organize as “housewives” to influence the political process (Hunter 1993). Political participation can vary according to race and class, however. In the United States, for example, white and Asian American women are much more likely to contact government officials or give money to political campaigns than Black and Latina women, although Black women attend rallies at similar levels as white and Asian women. These differences in political participation may result from different levels of education and income as well as different likelihoods of being contacted by a political party (Brown 2014; Evans 2016; Misra 2020).
Keeping Up on What the Government Is Doing
by Shannon Garvin
Political involvement often ebbs and wanes over the course of a lifetime. A few people are passionate and always involved, while many just move through life either believing in or fearing their own government.
Because we see a wide breadth of government forms across the world and globalization has made government access appear closer than ever before, more people are involved in activism, volunteering, and even running for office. The Arab Spring movement rolled across nations, the Women’s March inspired hundreds of global marches, and Black Lives Matter launched renewed focus on the rights of all people globally.
Whatever course you take, it is always good to know your responsibilities and privileges as a citizen, your legal rights, and the responsibilities that each government office expects of the person doing its work. Access to the Internet has made it easier to stay abreast of current government work. From large official sites with access to information to smaller one-person websites, a variety of online sources abound. As always, research information so you know if you are reading facts or merely opinions. Find out if writers are experts or wannabes. Freedom is precious. We all have a voice, and we can all be involved.
Research has shown, however, that women have less participation in these activities as well as political interest and knowledge. Political participation takes access to resources, information, skills, and time. Scholars attribute these gender differences in political participation to traditional gender norms and socialization as well as women’s lower levels of resources (Kittilson 2016). For example, women give less money on average to political campaigns than men in part because of the gender wage gap and wealth gap: women earn less than men on average and have less wealth than men. Women also have less leisure time than men because women disproportionately do unpaid labor in the home, especially caring for children. These patterns hold true across the world (Desposoto and Norrander 2009; Isaksson, Kotsadam, and Nerman 2014). Nevertheless, as women make progress in gaining equality, their political participation is increasing.
Women Running for and Winning Political Office
In most areas of the world, women have made slow but steady progress in winning elections to public office as heads of state, members of legislatures, and judges at the national, state, and local levels of government. UN Women (2020) maintains a map that tracks the number of women in ministerial positions and parliaments by country worldwide.
While women have ruled as hereditary monarchs since ancient times, the world’s first democratically elected female prime minister was Sirivamo Bandaranaike, who was elected by the parliament of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, in 1960. The first woman to serve as president of a country was Isabel Martínez de Perón of Argentina, who as vice president succeeded her husband to the presidency in 1974 after his death. The first woman elected by popular vote as president of a country was Vigdís Finnbogadóttir of Iceland, who won the 1980 presidential election. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the first president of an African nation in 2006. In 2014, Latin America set a record for having four female presidents at the same time—Michelle Bachelet of Chile, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina, Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica, and Dilma Rousseff of Brazil (see Box 1). The United States has never had a woman president.
Women Prime Ministers of Bangladesh
by Shaina Khan
For much of the time since Bangladesh achieved independence, a woman has been prime minister (PM). Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina have each taken multiple turns at leadership. Khaleda Zia entered politics in 1981 after her husband, then-president Zia ur-Rahman, was assassinated. In 1991, she became Bangladesh’s first woman PM. Her first term was marked by a cyclone, whose aftermath hampered her plans for the country’s economic development. Years later, she served a second term. Between her two terms, Sheikh Hasina served her first stint as PM. She is the daughter of Bangladesh’s first president and “Father of the Nation” Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. She holds the record for longest-serving PM of Bangladesh.
In her decade or more in power, each politician has found herself in trouble. In 2018, Khaleda Zia was convicted of embezzling from orphanage trusts while she was PM (she claims the charges were fabricated by opposing parties). Sheikh Hasina was criticized for her handling of violence against journalists and political activists in Bangladesh, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, or intersex plus (LGBTQI+) people, atheists, promoters of secular government, and opponents of her political party. In 2018, Bangladesh passed the Digital Security Act, which has been widely denounced for giving the government too much power to arrest dissenters. In 2020, at least a dozen Bangladeshis were arrested under this act for their social media posts. One of them, writer Mushtaq Ahmed, died in prison in February 2021.
Four Latin American Women Presidents
Latin America set a record in 2014 for having four female presidents at the same time—in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Costa Rica. Michelle Bachelet was the first woman to be elected president of Chile, first from 2006 to 2010 and then from 2014 to 2018. Bachelet survived detention and torture under the Augusto Pinochet regime but was later nominated minister of health under President Ricardo Lagos and first ran for president with the Sociality Party of Chile in 2005. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was the first democratically elected female president of Argentina, serving two consecutive terms from 2007 to 2015, succeeding her husband Néstor Kirchner. Laura Chinchilla was the first woman elected president of Costa Rica. As part of the Partido Liberácion Nacional (National Liberation Party), she was elected vice president of Costa Rica from 2006 to 2008 and then president of Costa Rica from 2010 to 2014. Dilma Rousseff, whose story began this chapter, was the first female president of Brazil, serving from 2011 to 2016.
As of November 2019, seventy-nine countries have had female heads of state (meaning ceremonial leaders of a country such as Queen Elizabeth in the United Kingdom), whereas 29 out of 194 countries across the world have had female heads of government (people who run a nation’s government). In some cases, mainly in presidential systems (like in the United States), there is only one leader who is both the ceremonial leader and the head of the government.
The number of women in legislatures has increased in recent decades, but female representation varies widely across countries of the world and is stubbornly resistant to increases in many places. Rwanda was the first country to achieve gender parity in their national parliament, which today is 61.3 percent women. In the United States, however, women are only 23.7 percent of congressmembers, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. While in 2018 women ran for public office and won in record numbers, the United States still lags eighty-two other countries across the world in women’s political representation in national legislatures. Things are not much better in state legislatures, where women hold only 29.2 percent of seats. US women still face high barriers to winning public office, including fundraising, discrimination, stereotyping, and harassment. Transgender women have recently made progress in winning public office in the United States. For example, in 2017, Danica Roem became the first openly transgender woman to win and hold a seat in a US state legislature (see Profile 1). In 2020, Sarah McBride from Delaware became the first transgender woman to win a seat in the US Senate.
Profile: Danica Roem
Born in Manassas, Virginia, Danica Roem started her career as a journalist after receiving a bachelor’s degree in journalism from St. Bonaventure University. She worked professionally as a lead reporter of the Gainesville Times and news editor of the Montgomery County Sentinel for more than ten years before running for public office.
In 2017, as part of the Democratic Party, Roem defeated thirteen-term incumbent Republican Robert Marshall and was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, representing District 13. Robert Marshall, a well-known Republican with anti-LGBTQI+ views, had introduced HB 1612 (the Physical Privacy Act) earlier that year. The bill, also known as a “bathroom bill,” would force those in Virginia to use the restroom that matches their sex assigned at birth, rather than their gender identity. During the campaign, Marshall referred to Roem using masculine pronouns and refused to debate her, yet she won the race and made history as the first transgender woman elected to and seated in a US state legislature.
As a delegate, Roem has been recognized for her work in infrastructure and public transportation in Virginia’s District 13. Two successful bills she has cosponsored include HB 1049, which prohibits housing, employment, banking, insurance, and public accommodation discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation, and HB 5052, which recognizes Juneteenth as a legal holiday. She also voted in favor of the successful ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, making Virginia the thirty-eighth and final state required to ratify the ERA.
Across the world, the average share of women in national legislatures is currently 25.1 percent, a slow increase from 11.3 percent in 1995. The percentage of women in national legislatures varies significantly by region. As of October 2020, the average share of women in national legislatures were: Americas, 32 percent; Europe, 30.1 percent; sub-Saharan African, 24.7 percent; Asia, 20.4 percent; Pacific, 19.7 percent; and Middle East and North Africa, 16.5 percent. In Nordic countries, women comprise more than 40 percent of national parliaments (Inter-Parliamentary Union 2020). Globally, as of February 2019, there are twenty-seven nations where women account for less than 10 percent of parliamentarians in single or lower houses, including three chambers with no women at all. Women make up half or more of national legislatures in just three countries: Bolivia, Cuba, and Rwanda (Atske, Geiger, and Scheller 2019; UN Women 2021). And women’s representation is not an inevitable march forward. In countries of the former Soviet Union, women’s representation actually decreased after the end of the Cold War, dropping from 27 percent in 1985 to 8.4 percent in 1995 (Paxton, Kunovich, and Hughes 2007). Women still have a long way to go to win equal representation in national legislatures across the world.
Women’s representation on courts has also increased in recent decades, although it still lags far behind men’s representation. In the United States, women’s representation in law school classes reached 50 percent in the 1990s, but women still make up only about one-quarter of federal court judges and one-third of state court judges. Among all sitting federal judges, only ninety-two—or 6.7 percent—are women of color. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman to serve on the US Supreme Court, appointed in 1980 (National Association of Women Judges, n.d.; Root 2019). While state judges are often elected by popular vote, federal judges are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Women’s exclusion from the networks that influence judicial appointments (sometimes called “old boys’ clubs”) as well as their formal and informal selection processes are significant factors in women’s underrepresentation on the federal bench. Globally, women account for about a quarter of all judges, varying significantly by region. In central and Eastern Europe and central Asia, women are about half of the judiciary, but in South Asia, women comprise less than 10 percent of judges (UN Women 2011, 60). The International Association of Women Judges formed in 1991 to promote and empower women judges.
Obstacles to Achieving Representation in Government
Women face many obstacles to achieving equal representation in governments across the world. Traditionally in many cultures, political leadership has been associated with men and traits considered masculine, such as aggression, competitiveness, dominance, and decisiveness. According to scholar Miguel Carreras, “There’s a stereotype that women are ‘soft’ and might not be able to deal with a security crisis or a war, for example. But if they’re ‘too aggressive’ or try to show too much ‘masculinity,’ they might be accused of not being ‘nice’ or ‘feminine’ enough. It’s a difficult line for women to walk when it comes to satisfying people; whichever direction they take, they’re likely to run into problems” (Carlin, Carreras, and Love 2020). This Catch-22 makes it difficult for women to successfully run for public office. Furthermore, gender bias intersects with other systems of inequality and privilege, including racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism, to create even higher barriers for women in politics. Ethnic minority women, for example, face greater prejudices than either white women or ethnic minority men because of the intersections of gender and race biases (Mügge and Erzeel 2016). These cultural attitudes influence people’s perceptions of potential candidates and their voting behavior.
Gender-biased attitudes limit women’s access to the education, time, and resources important to successfully running for political office. Girls often have less access to literacy and education than boys, and girls’ political aspirations are often discouraged. Gender stereotypes and expectations that women should be responsible for family and households often make it difficult for women to run for and hold political office. Women also have less access than men to financial resources that they need to run for political office. This is especially true for marginalized women.
Women are often excluded or marginalized from social networks required for winning political office. Political parties are the major pathway to elected office across the world, but they are often dominated by men, and women struggle to gain access and win the support of political parties. Women have had some success running as independents, however, particularly in the Middle East. In countries such as Egypt, Jordan, and Oman, where there is an absence of political parties or where existing parties are unwilling to back women, some women have successfully run for national office as independents (Shalaby 2020; Welborne 2020).
Electoral systems can affect women’s success in winning public office. Plurality or majority voting systems put women at a disadvantage for winning public office, whereas proportional representation systems create more opportunities for women. A plurality-majority voting system is where each voter is allowed to vote for only one candidate, and the candidate who wins the most votes—either a majority or a plurality—is elected. A proportional representation system is where voters select parties instead of individual candidates, and seats are distributed to each party in proportion to the number of votes the party receives. New Zealand’s mixed-member proportional system (MMP) has been particularly successful in diversifying representation. The MMP system gives each citizen two votes, one for a party and one for a candidate. The party vote determines how many seats in parliament each party gets. The candidate vote selects who represents the electorate in each district. Every candidate who wins an election receives a seat in parliament, and the remaining seats are distributed based on the party votes and filled from the party candidate lists (New Zealand Electoral Commission, n.d.; Terrell 2020). Research shows that proportional representation systems result in an 8 percent greater number of women being elected to office, because parties want to put forward a diversified slate of candidates to reach a wider range of voters (Lijphart 1999; Norris 2004). The electoral college system for electing US presidents is neither a majority voting system nor a proportional representation system but a vestige of the country’s history of slavery (Kelkar 2016).
In addition to political and electoral systems, gender-biased media coverage can have a significant impact on women’s success in running for political office. A free press is essential to democracy because most people receive political information through the media—newspapers, broadcast television, magazines, and online platforms. The media significantly influences public perceptions and attitudes of political candidates. Media portrayals of women running for political office can have a major impact on the likelihood they will be elected. Although the media claims objectivity, most media platforms express gender bias in their language and overall portrayals of women running for office. For example, the media often focuses on women’s families and domestic lives but not on men’s (see Box 2). Furthermore, the media gives less airtime for female candidates to discuss their political goals and allows more interruptions of female candidates by opponents and moderators. Women often do not have the financial resources to counter these biases through paid advertising (Van der Pas and Aaldering 2020).
Hillary Clinton and Kamala Harris
Two women who have been in the spotlight in American politics and constantly suffer from gendered media coverage are Hillary Clinton and Kamala Harris. In 2016, Clinton became the first woman nominated for president by a major party in the history of the United States. Before that, she served in the US Senate for two terms and was secretary of state. Harris was the first Black woman district attorney of San Francisco, the first Black woman attorney general of California, was elected to the US Senate in 2017, and the first Black woman to be elected vice president of the United States.
Both women have been often questioned on their appearance and personal lives by the press and the public. Clinton becoming a grandmother, for instance, was enough reason for the media to question her ability to be president. CBS News published the headline “Hillary Clinton: Grandmother-in-Chief?” and Times published the headline “The Pros and Cons of ‘President Grandma.’” No one has ever questioned Donald Trump’s grandfather status as a sign of unfitness for office. Trump himself publicly said of Clinton, “I just don’t think she has a presidential look, and you need a presidential look.” Trump also attacked Harris, calling her “totally unlikeable” and a “monster.” Harris experiences not only sexism but also racism. From mispronouncing her name to questioning her Americanness, commentators have othered her, treating her as less than human. Aware of the sexist media, Clinton once joked that all she needed to get front-page news coverage was to change her hair.
Gender bias in the media affects the visual portrayals of women. For instance, when Brianna Wu ran for Congress to represent the eighth district of Massachusetts in 2018, she went on Twitter to call out the sexism in the Boston Globe’s coverage of her race. She wrote, “Angry. @BostonGlobe published a guide to the election. They choose pictures of my opponents wearing suits. They pick one of me from Gamergate where I’m wearing a t-shirt and have bright anime hair. I literally did a photo shoot with them wearing a dress and heels a week ago.” The Boston Globe portrayed Wu as less professional and less of a leader than her male counterparts.
Female politicians are also sometimes sexualized by the media. For example, the United Kingdom’s Mail Online published an article titled “Weapons of Mass Distraction: German Chancellor Angela Merkel Shows Off Plunging Neckline” after Merkel attended an opera gala with a dress that showed her cleavage. This headline sexualized Merkel, potentially undermining perceptions of her fitness for political leadership. These gender-biased portrayals are amplified on social media, where anyone with an Internet connection can express their sexist views.
The starkest deterrents to women’s engagement in electoral politics are violence and harassment (Krook 2020, 2021; Piscopo 2020a). In the United States, domestic extremists plotted to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer in October 2020, and then on January 6, 2021, violent mobs invaded the US Capitol building, hunting for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (among others), invading her office, and threatening her (Rosenberg 2021). Research indicates that gender-based violence prevents many women from running for office and from carrying out their duties once elected (UN Women 2020, 23). According to scholar Mona Lena Krook,
Violence against women in politics takes many forms: physical, psychological, sexual, economic, and semiotic. Examples of physical violence include the assassination of Brazilian politician Marielle Franco in 2018 and the arrest and ongoing torture of women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia (see Profile 2). Online abuse is a common form of psychological violence, involving threats and trolling to force women to leave or reduce their social media engagement. Online attacks often disproportionately target younger women and women of color, like Diane Abbott, the first Black woman elected to the British parliament. (Krook 2020)
Men also target women in public office for verbal abuse and harassment (see Box 3). Research on violence against women in politics in India, Nepal, and Pakistan found that men use violence to “reinforce traditional social and political structures” by targeting women who challenge patriarchal political norms (UN Women Centre for Social Research 2014).
A Voice Both Clear and Strong
by Sarah Baum
Ida B. Wells was born July 16, 1862, into slavery during the Civil War in Mississippi. She and her family were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, and her parents raised her to value education. At the age of 16, she lost her parents and her youngest brother to the 1878 Yellow Fever outbreak, leaving her to care for her remaining siblings. She moved the family to Memphis and took a job as an educator to support them. At the same time, she founded a newspaper and focused her personal journalism on Southern racial segregation and the inequality that went with it.
When she published a pamphlet speaking out against lynching, a white mob stormed her office and burned her press down. Because of ongoing threats, she was forced to move to Chicago, where she spoke out against the Columbian Exposition for its depiction of African Americans.
Ms. Wells was easily the most famous woman of color in America during her day, speaking out against racial injustice as well as for women’s rights. She became a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and traveled extensively both nationally and internationally to shine light on the conditions of women and people of color in America. Her voice rang out true and strong whether in the spoken word or through her writings. Never silenced and always on the side of what was right, Ida B. Wells continued her lifetime of activism until her death in 1931 at the age of 68, but her words and her voice live on eternally.
Profile: The Assassination of Marielle Franco in Brazil
Marielle Franco was an Afro-Brazilian woman elected to the City Council of Rio de Janeiro in January 2017. Franco was a Black woman from one of the poorest slums in Brazil who was married to another woman and whose campaign was all about human rights and demilitarization of Rio’s police. Her election was a threat to those who supported the status quo in Brazil. On March 14, 2018, Franco was brutally assassinated. The investigation of her assassination was incredibly mishandled, and up to this day, there are no conclusive answers as to who assassinated her or why. Her death sparked an outcry in Brazil and the world, and led to more Black Brazilian women running for political office. In addition, in 2020, Franco’s widow, Mônica Benício, successfully ran for a City Council seat, ensuring that the legacy Franco created lives on.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Response to Ted Yoho’s Abuse
Congressman Ted Yoho (R-Florida) accosted and verbally assaulted Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) in broad daylight on the steps of the US Capitol, calling her a “fucking bitch.” Several people witnessed the exchange, including a reporter from The Hill, Congressman Roger Williams (R-Texas), who accompanied Yoho, and an adviser who accompanied Ocasio-Cortez. Yoho also called Ocasio-Cortez “disgusting” and “out of [her] freaking mind,” referring to Ocasio-Cortez’s recent statements about the spike in crime rates in New York City being connected to financial instability due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A few days later, Yoho addressed his behavior on the House floor. Instead of acknowledging the disrespectful and aggressive nature of his speech toward Ocasio-Cortez, Yoho denied name-calling the Congresswoman. He blamed the press for attributing words to him that he had never spoken. Yoho was not even able to say Ocasio-Cortez’s name. He only addressed her as his “colleague from New York.” He invoked the all-too-familiar and classic “I-have-a-wife-and-daughter” trope, often used by men when accused of disrespecting or abusing women, as if having women in their lives excuses them for hurting other women. He then ended his speech by saying, “I cannot apologize for my passion,” showing us once again that men are able to assault women, call it passion, and get away with it.
Later that week, also on the floor of the House of Representatives, Ocasio-Cortez addressed Yoho’s behavior and responded to his non-apology. She stated that she is familiar with this type of language, as are women everywhere. She brought up the “I-have-a-daughter” trope in order to tear it apart. She made it clear that having wives and daughters does not excuse men from sexist attitudes and behavior.
Women continue to face many barriers to winning public office, including inadequate political support from their parties, a lack of financial resources, gender stereotyping, gender-based violence, and patriarchal structures across societies. In response, women are developing a range of strategies to overcome these obstacles.
Strategies to Increase Women’s Representation in Politics
Many governments and nongovernmental organizations are working to identify women interested in running for office, providing training and support networks for women candidates, and creating projects that focus on ending sexism in politics. Some seek to create systems to ensure that women are equally represented in party leadership positions and committees. One strategy that has successfully increased women’s representation in political office in many countries across the world is the implementation of quota systems.
Quota systems attempt to ensure that women fill a predetermined number of legislative seats. There are different types of quotas: reserved seats, party quotas, and legislative quotas. A reserved seats quota system is where a percentage of the political positions is reserved for women, usually 20 to 30 percent. Party quotas are party-specific policies to increase the number of women candidates. Lastly, legislative quotas mean that the government requires parties to nominate a certain percentage of women. From 1995 to 2005 alone, 55 countries adopted gender quotas, and today 130 countries have at least some kind of quota in their electoral processes. As a result, the number of women elected in these countries has increased dramatically (Maillé 2020).
Quota systems do not always produce equal representation of men and women in political office, however. In countries with gender quotas the average share of women in public office is 26.3 percent, significantly lower than the 50 percent that people would expect in an egalitarian society (IDEA, n.d.). One reason is that in some countries, quotas are voluntary and up to political parties to enforce. Research in Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan showed that quotas brought only slow and uneven progress and that their success was dependent on the degree of party system institutionalization, electoral competitiveness, legal enforcement, and social-cultural attitudes toward women (Tan 2016). In addition, efforts to incorporate women into political systems often do not account for the diversity among women. Gender quotas tend to incorporate only women from the majority group unless they explicitly address race, ethnicity, or other marginalized identities. IDEA maintains a Gender Quotas Database with information about quota systems across the world and strategies for implementing them.
In addition to quota systems, there are nonprofit organizations and support networks that aim to increase the number of women who are in public office. In the United States, the Women’s Campaign Fund, founded in 1974, is a bipartisan organization that strives to elect women of all political ideologies and ethnicities. Emerge America recruits, trains, and connects Democratic women to networks and resources that will best prepare them to run for political office. Emily’s List raises money to support pro-choice female candidates. (The name is an acronym for “Early Money Is Like Yeast”; i.e., it makes the dough rise). The Victory Institute promotes political candidates who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, or intersex (LGBTQI+). The National Women’s Political Caucus, founded in 1971, helps elect progressive, pro-choice women to office. She Should Run, founded in 2011, has inspired more than 15,000 women to run for office since the 2016 election and has also launched an initiative called #250Kby2030, which strives to get 250,000 women to run for office by 2030. The organization Represent Women advocates for a fairer and more representative electoral system in the United States.
UN Women supports women’s political participation and leadership in many countries around the world. They provide training for women political candidates to help build their capacities, and they offer voter and civic education and sensitization campaigns on gender equality. UN Women also backs gender equality advocates in calling on political parties, governments, and others to do their part in empowering women. For example, in Kenya’s 2013 elections, UN Women provided training to nearly nine hundred female candidates in all forty-seven counties and ran a Campaign for Women in Leadership to encourage voters to vote for women. As a result, the number of women legislators rose above 20 percent, more than double compared to the previous elections (UN Women 2013). These numbers continued to rise in the 2017 elections (National Democracy Institute 2018).
In Timor-Leste, UN Women and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) supported an active women’s parliamentary caucus, civil society groups, and the national gender unit to promote women candidates. As a result, the country achieved 38 percent women legislators in 2012, exceeding the one-third quota mandated by law and achieving the highest proportion of female legislators in Asia (UN Women 2013). In 2018, two leading Timor-Leste women’s organizations—CAUCUS and Movimentu Feto Foin Sae (MOFFE)—jointly organized an initiative called “Promoting Participation of Women in Political Parties,” which raised women’s participation in the elections as voters, poll workers, and candidates. UNDP organized a live television debate program, “Talks on Women Politics” (UNDP 2018).
In response to the many obstacles women continue to face in running for public office, governments and nongovernmental organizations have adopted a number of strategies, including quota systems and programs to recruit, train, and support female candidates, financially and otherwise. These efforts are making a difference, helping to increase the number of women in public office. The next section addresses the question of what happens when they get there.
Women and Political Power
What difference do women in leadership make? Are women leaders different from male leaders? Do they support different policies? Some evidence shows that women do lead differently than men. For example, in one study of the European Parliament, male and female legislators expressed similar concern for the environment, yet women were significantly more likely to support environmental legislation than men—even after controlling for political ideology and nationality (Ramstetter and Habersack 2020). A different study suggests that in countries and at times where women make up a larger proportion of the legislature, social spending is greater, including spending on cash benefits to families and social services aimed at families (Bolzendahl 2011). On female presidents, a study by the Centre for Economic Policy Research and the World Economic Forum found that in 2020, countries led by women—like New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern and Germany’s Angela Merkel—had “systematically and significantly better” COVID-19 outcomes because of their proactive and coordinated policy responses, such as locking down earlier, resulting in half as many deaths on average as those led by men (Garikipati and Kambhampati 2020). But are women more likely to advocate for gender equality?
There are two forms of political representation: descriptive representation and substantive representation. Descriptive representation refers to the numbers of women who are elected to political offices worldwide (relative to the number of women in the entire population), while substantive representation refers to the impact women make once they hold political positions. Political scientists conduct research on whether there is a link between descriptive and substantive representation, whether one leads to the other, and whether having more women in office results in laws and policies that increase gender equality. The results are mixed.
Some evidence shows that women leaders do lead to increased gender equality. For example, one study showed that female mayors in Brazil did not increase women’s numerical representation in the municipal executive bureaucracy, but they did contribute to the creation of bureaucracies with fewer gender inequalities, including increasing the average wages of women bureaucrats and decreasing the gender wage gap in the bureaucracy (Funk, Silva, and Escobar-Lemmon 2019). Research in the United States has revealed that working mothers in Congress are more likely to introduce legislation that address issues specific to parents and children (Bryant and Hellwege 2018). Another recent study, however, found that more women in parliaments did not relate to the body’s responsiveness to women’s policy preferences. The study, which compared twenty-one European countries, found that women’s policy preferences tend to be more accurately represented in parliaments than those of men, but that this correlation was driven not by the share of female office-holders, but rather by levels of women’s voter turnout. In other words, who votes is more important than the number of women who hold office (Dingler, Kroeber, and Fortin-Rittberger 2019). Another important factor to keep in mind is that women often do not represent the interests of all women, but instead represent the interests of women who share similar backgrounds and experiences (McCall and Orloff 2017).
Some evidence suggests that the political context influences how women lead. In her recent research on Latin America, scholar Leslie A. Schwindt-Bayer found that formal and informal institutions, which are gendered, in combination with Latin America’s recent crises of democracy, advantage men and disadvantage women, influencing not only the number of women elected to office, but also what they do once there, how much power they have, and how their presence and actions influence democracy and society more broadly (Schwindt-Bayer 2018, 2). A study of Yemen found that women leaders who challenge the patriarchal structure are professionally and personally punished, which leads them to side with policies that sustain the status quo (Al-Sakkaf 2020).
Research on presidents in Latin America and Asia found that gender stereotypes play a big role in determining public approval of elected officials. Corruption has virtually no effect on male presidents’ approval ratings but has a significant and substantial negative effect on public support for female presidents. Women are often considered “morally superior” to men, and thus more honest and trustworthy, so they tend to pay a higher price in public support when they’re tied to claims of political corruption. A prime example is the case of Dilma Rousseff, whose story began this chapter. She lost the presidency after her opposition accused her (without evidence) of corrupt behaviors that were common to her male predecessors but had never unseated them.
As judges, women bring important experiences and perspective to their decision‐making roles. Scholars have studied whether female judges perform differently than male judges. One area of research focuses on productivity. Research on gender differences in the judiciary in the United States has shown that female judges perform better than male judges. Judicial performance was rated based on the number of published opinions, the number of citations to their opinions, and open disagreements (dissents) with those from the same political party background (a measure of judicial independence). In the study, women produced more opinions, had greater numbers of citations, and were more independent than men (Choi et al. 2011). Research in Brazil, however, does not show differences in the judicial productivity of males and females (Traguetto and Gomes 2019).
Another area of research is whether female judges rule differently than men, particularly whether they are more feminist. Research in the United States has found that female judges are more likely to favor plaintiffs in sex discrimination cases than male judges (Peresie 2005; Boyd, Epstein, and Martin 2010). Research on judges in China shows that female judges are more likely than male judges to employ mediation as a preferred dispute resolution method to facilitate reconciliation between the parties and to seek civil compensation for victims (Wei 2020). A study in Egypt found that female judges may help make the structure of judicial work more inclusive and less confrontational, depending on the institutional context. Female judges were less hierarchical than male judges, but they did not display more sympathy toward women in divorce cases (Lindbekk 2017). Research on the European Court of Human Rights has shown that female judges are overall more likely to find violations, regardless of the gender of applicants. This is especially true of cases involving physical integrity rights violations, such as torture (Voeten 2020).
Increasing the number of women in political office is a step toward gender equality but must be paired with structural changes within governments and the active participation of women’s rights activists and nongovernmental organizations. Research suggests that the best ways to achieve gender equality are through gender mainstreaming and institutionalization. Gender mainstreaming is when governments consider how every policy has underlying gendered assumptions and then address women’s interests directly in laws and public policies (Walby 2005). Institutionalization is when governments create women’s ministries or policy agencies to ensure that gender is incorporated into government programs and planning. Women’s movements are also a critical component of advancing women’s rights because they can provide information to government officials and legislators and pressure them to consider women’s issues. When women’s rights advocates communicate with government agencies, policy proposals are significantly more effective at addressing the issues faced by women, reports scholar S. Laurel Weldon. Activists can reframe issues, raise new ones, and offer alternatives to existing bureaucratic ways of thinking and doing (Weldon 2002). Weldon argues that strong, autonomous women’s movements “magnif[y] women’s voice inside government” (Weldon 2002, 1162).
The Gender Equality Paradox
While women have gained some formal political power and made significant legislative gains over the past fifty years, advances in gender equality have been slow and have in some cases stalled or rolled backward. In the United States, for example, despite Congress passing the Equal Pay Act in 1963, a significant wage gap between men and women persists. Rates of violence against women persist at high levels around the world, and women’s sexual and reproductive rights are contracting in many countries.
These rollbacks on women’s rights have been fueled by rightwing populist movements that have eliminated many of the hard-won rights that women have gained in recent history. Around the world, rightwing forces have mobilized people in opposition to sexual and reproductive rights using the vague concept of “gender ideology.” The phrase was developed in the Vatican in the mid-1990s and popularized in Dale O’Leary’s 1997 book The Gender Agenda. The book argued that substituting the word “sex” with “gender” was part of a global feminist and LGBTQI+ scheme to dissolve the family and remake society. The right has used the concept of “gender ideology” in many countries, including Brazil, Colombia, Ireland, and Poland, to eliminate ministries that protect women (Vaggione 2020).
While women have gained more political power and won passage of legislation to protect their rights over the past fifty years, gender inequality persists. Scholar Janet Johnson (2018) explains this paradox by arguing that as women have gained entrance into formal politics, real political power has shifted to informal networks and institutions: “economic liberalization has strengthened elites outside of formal structures and constituted corrupted, informal rules and institutions.” These elite networks of men control both formal and informal institutions, ingraining gender bias and limiting women’s power. She describes a “bait and switch,” where women appear to have power as policy makers but then are boxed in with little real power to make progressive social change. For example, women’s ministries are created or offices to combat violence against women established, but then they receive little budget or actual power to enforce the law. Or gender equality initiatives are nested in old, patriarchal institutions that engage in active resistance or passive neglect.
Another way women’s political power is undermined is the increasing erosion of democracies in the last decade. Just as women are gaining real political power, rightwing movements have emerged across the world, such as in Brazil, Hungary, the Philippines, Poland, and the United States. Rightwing autocratic leaders such as Bolsonaro and Trump, upon coming into power, have prioritized taking away the rights of women and LGBTQI+ people. They have eroded the power of women’s votes as well as their ability to participate in political systems worldwide, hampering their ability to address ongoing discrimination and disadvantages they suffer.
In the next section, we examine how women exercise political power outside of formal systems of government. Around the world, women are leading grassroots social movements to expose systems of inequality and privilege, resist the rightwing rollback of their rights, and collectively build a future where all people are cared for and valued.
Part II. Beyond Electoral Politics: Women in Civil Society
While participating in formal party politics and elections, women have also played a significant role in creating political and social change through community-based activism, national social movements, and transnational feminist organizing (Basu 2010). From signing a petition to joining a flash mob, from buying fair‐trade coffee to blocking the construction of an oil pipeline with their bodies, women have sought to influence their communities, nations, and the world. In February 2017, for example, women organized mass protests all over the world against the election of Donald Trump.
Women have worked for women’s rights and social welfare, but they have also organized to combat racism and colonialism, participated in unions and labor movements, peace activism, and environmental groups, and worked on many other issues. Through community organizing, women have created nongovernmental organizations, built social movements, and formed transnational alliances to create social change. Their strategies and tactics have been varied, from lobbying and litigating to supporting public education and using the creative arts to make social change.
Fannie Barrier Williams: An Intersectional Advocate
by Shannon Garvin
Fannie Barrier Williams was an outspoken advocate of civil rights at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. As an African American woman, she understood the need to work for racial equity and women’s rights: systemic racism, segregation, and lynchings were still commonplace, and women had not yet gained the right to vote.
In the 1890s, she was active in the Chicago women’s club movement, a network of women’s clubs devoted to social action. She helped to found the National Federation of Afro-American Women and the National League of Colored Women—which later merged into the National Association of Colored Women (NACW)—along with other prominent African America women such as Harriet Tubman and Ida B. Wells. Later, she was active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1893, she delivered an address titled “The Intellectual Progress of the Colored Women of the United States since the Emancipation Proclamation—May 18, 1893” to the World’s Congress of Representative Women at the Chicago Columbian Exposition. In 1895, she represented Illinois at the Colored Woman’s Congress in Atlanta.
Although she faced racism from white women’s rights groups, she worked with the National American Women Suffrage Association and became friends with Susan B. Anthony, delivering her eulogy at that organization’s 1907 convention. In addition to her extensive political work, she helped create the Provident Hospital and subsequent homes and safe shelters for underserved communities and people of color in Chicago.
Feminism has a long history with “multiple starting points all over the globe,” says historian Mary Hawkesworth (2006, 32). Even before women won the right to vote, they created, led, and participated in myriad movements seeking social reform on a wide range of issues, including education, working conditions, pure food, and maternal health. In the nineteenth century, women participated in and led movements to abolish slavery in many countries. In the early twentieth century, Ida B. Wells led a movement against lynching in the United States. In 1915, during World War I, women from warring and neutral nations gathered at The Hague in the Netherlands to discuss how to end the war and ensure permanent peace across the world, forming the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
In the twentieth century, women played key roles in independence movements in Latin America and Africa. For example, in 1960, three sisters—Patria, Minerva, and María Teresa Mirabal—were outspoken political activists and leaders of the resistance against the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. Their assassination in November 1960 led to the acceleration of the Dominican independence movement and the end of the Trujillo dictatorship. To honor the Mirabal sisters, the November 25th was named International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.
In 1994, Dominican American author Julia Alvarez published In the Time of the Butterflies, a fictionalized narrative of the Mirabal sisters, which was later turned into a movie. More recently, Puerto Rican Dominican actress Michelle Rodriguez co-produced and starred in a 2010 movie Trópico de Sangre, about the Mirabal sisters.
The Women’s Democratic Front
by Qamar Ahmed
Pakistan’s Women’s Democratic Front (WDF), an “independent socialist-feminist resistance movement,” was founded on International Working Women’s Day, March 8, 2018. WDF is committed to the formation of an urban and rural working-class women’s movement engaged in struggle to end patriarchy, its interlocking socioeconomic structures, and all forms of gendered oppression, violence, and discrimination. It struggles for gender equality, the restoration of peace, the formation of a people’s democracy, and the creation of a classless society.
WDF understands the oppression and exploitation of women as concretely tied to the oppression and exploitation of the Pakistani peoples as a whole, and they assert that these oppressions on the basis of gender, class, and nationality emerge from capitalism, feudalism, imperialism, and religious extremism. They struggle in solidarity with movements of workers, farmers, students, oppressed nations, and marginalized peoples.
The WDF emphasizes socialist feminism, which they describe as a Marxist viewpoint that understands capitalism and patriarchy as profoundly connected and foundational to women’s oppression and exploitation. This kind of feminism challenges the gendered division of labor and is concerned with the material and social conditions of women’s lives. WDF works to abolish all economic, governmental, societal, and patriarchal structures that are based on the subjugation of women and the exploitation of their labor. “The history of women is a history of class struggle,” they write. WDF frequently hosts public study circles, lectures, and conversations, which can be accessed here.
In Argentina, beginning in 1977, Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo protested against the “disappearance” of their children by the Argentine military. The women wore white headscarves and marched in front of the presidential palace carrying pictures of their kidnapped children. These protests grew over time, drawing international attention to human rights abuses in Argentina. Disappearances were also happening in Brazil in the 1970s, including at the time Dilma Rousseff was arrested. She was lucky to survive.
Women across the world are also working to protect Indigenous land rights and end child marriage. In Kenya, women of the Rendille community in Marsabit County banded together to protect their lands when investors came in and claimed it as their own. The Rendille people, with women’s voices at the center, took the developer to court with the hopes of protecting their communal lands. In India, Women’s Peer Groups across five rural states are working to end child marriage in their communities. They are organizing people to pledge that they won’t have their daughters married underage, and they are leading rallies in their villages to spread awareness about the negative impacts of child marriage (UN Women 2019).
Women have organized not only at the state and local level, but transnationally as well. For more than two centuries, women have organized transnational feminist networks by working on a wide range of issues, including poverty, racism, equal access to education and employment, fair wages, labor conditions, economic injustice, imperialism, migration, health, reproductive justice, violence against women and girls, war and peace, land rights, environmental justice, and more (Hawkesworth 2006, 29-30). From the beginning, transnational women’s movements often reproduced global relations of dominance, perpetuating “the image of women of European origin in the lead offering a hand to their more oppressed sisters” (Rupp 1996, 10). Women from colonized or formerly colonized countries, however, challenged imperialism in international women’s organizations, paving the way for a more equal global women’s movement.
Since World War II, many women have organized transnationally within the framework of the United Nations. In 1946, women’s organizations and groups successfully lobbied the UN for the formation of the Commission on the Status of Women, a policy-making body to promote gender equality and the advancement of women’s rights. In 1979 the UN adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and in 1993 the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
Late twentieth-century transnational feminist organizing was anchored in four UN world conferences for women—in Mexico City in 1975, Copenhagen in 1980, Nairobi in 1985, and Beijing in 1995. The conferences were attended by representatives of nations as well as activists from nongovernmental organizations. The Beijing conference had seventeen thousand government representatives and thirty thousand activists, and produced a comprehensive plan to achieve global legal equality, known as the Beijing Platform for Action (UN Women 1995). There have also been several other UN conferences on specific issues, such as reproductive health and violence against women. The 1994 UN International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo produced a Programme of Action that was the first international agreement recognizing the right to sexual and reproductive health (UN ICPD 2014 ). In 2015, the UN held the Ending Violence against Women conference in Istanbul, Turkey (UN Women, n.d.). Conflicts in priorities created tensions at the UN conferences, with women of the Global North focused on legal equality and sexual autonomy, while women from the Global South focused more on imperialism as an obstacle to women’s advancement and on issues such as access to clean water and control of land (Joachim 2013, 471).
Women have also been at the forefront of cultural work to change people’s hearts and minds, such as raising awareness about social issues and leading community care and mutual aid efforts. An example is the 1960s Black Power movement. Although well-known for young Black men wearing berets and leather jackets, the Black Panthers Party created community programs led by Black women, including the Free Breakfast for School Children Program, the Liberation Schools, and the People’s Free Medical Centers. The Panther women in the free breakfast program cooked and served daily breakfast for schoolchildren. The program expanded to multiple cities around the country and served more than twenty thousand children weekly. Inspired by the Black Panthers, children of Puerto Rican immigrants founded the Young Lords, which created similar community programs, including free breakfast, clothing donations, health services, political education, and street clean-ups when the garbage services were lacking in Spanish Harlem.
Another example of community care occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, during the AIDS/HIV epidemic. Women all across the United States and the world led community care initiatives to care for people dying from AIDS. They brought them food, cleaned their houses, and did work that others refused to do for fear of the disease. Women have always cared about their communities when those in power ignored them.
In the 2000s, women’s activism surged across the world, challenging war, domestic violence, exclusion from education, and more. In 2003, Liberian women formed a peace movement that was able to end a fourteen-year civil war. As a strategy, they conducted sex strikes as a means to pressure men to actively challenge the war. It worked. In 2006, women from the badlands of central India started a collective movement to stop sexual and domestic violence by intervening in the abuse and demanding husbands to acknowledge their behavior. Their efforts have been successful. Known as the Gulabi Gang, they still act as a community resource for girls and women experiencing violence. In 2009 in Pakistan, 11-year-old Malala Yousafzai stood up to the Taliban by writing a series of blogs about how she was denied access to education and advocating for education for all girls. The Taliban tried to assassinate her. She survived a wound to her head and neck. In 2014, she received the Nobel Prize, becoming the youngest person ever to receive this honor, and in 2020, she graduated from Oxford University with a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics.
Nawal El Saadawi
by Juliet Schulman-Hall
Nawal El Saadawi, an internationally recognized feminist writer and doctor, died on March 21, 2021, at the age of 89. Born in Kafr Tahlah, Egypt, El Saadawi started her feminism at the age of 10 when she ate raw eggplant to blacken her teeth to ward off suitors for an arranged marriage. El Saadawi’s resistance continued throughout her life, making her one of the most famous feminist activists for women’s rights in the Arab world.
El Saadawi stated that she was constantly “dissatisfied with her surroundings.” As a doctor, she witnessed the oppression of rural women in her community. She advocated against female genital mutilation, a practice that she experienced at the age of six. As a writer, she used words as an “act of rebellion against injustice” and a “weapon with which to fight the system.”
Her resistance knew no bounds—fighting even against the government. In 1981, El Saadawi challenged Anwar Sadat’s regime by protesting its lack of democracy and freedom. This led to her two-month imprisonment. In the same year, El Saadawi founded the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association (AWSA), which focused on women’s active participation in all spheres of society—socially, politically, culturally, and economically.
Despite imprisonment, death threats, and hate, El Saadawi continued to fight against injustice. In 2005, she ran for president of Egypt against Hosni Mubarak but later decided to boycott the election. In 2009, she established the Egyptian chapter of the Global Solidarity for Secular Society, which worked toward removing Islam as a state religion. Nawal El Saadawi’s legacy and work is emblematic of a radical feminist voice for social, political, and religious change.
Women have since harnessed the power of the Internet and social media to create social change. In 2011, thousands of Arab women used Twitter, YouTube, and blogs to organize protests against oppressive regimes across the Middle East. Called the “Arab Spring” uprisings, women from Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen led antigovernment and pro-democracy demonstrations that resulted in the fall of many governments. As mobile phones become accessible to many worldwide, regular people began sharing information about events as they occurred on platforms with a global reach, such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok. Now, hashtags, memes, videos, online petitions, and much more are a central tool for women’s activism.
Women have started many social movements through hashtags, such as #MeToo, #SayHerName, and #FamiliesBelongTogether. The most influential movement for racial justice in the twenty-first century came from a hashtag created by three Black women organizers who started the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. When Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors created the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer George Zimmerman, they did not anticipate how the hashtag would change activism in the twenty-first century. Now, more than forty BLM chapters worldwide fight locally to end police brutality and state violence against Black people.
At the local, national, and transnational levels, women have made a significant impact on the world. Women have come together to raise awareness about issues they care about, organize local protests and direct actions, create community resources and mutual aid networks, and increase social justice a day at a time. Women have influenced governments from the outside but also met the needs of their communities directly.
Over the past one hundred years, women across the world have greatly increased their representation and power within political systems. Women have fought for and won the right to vote and to run for political office. In many parts of the world, they are now serving as heads of government, legislators, and judges as well as in other official roles. In these positions, many have worked to strengthen gender equality and social justice. But women have also sought influence and power outside formal political systems, through grassroots social movements and by working in their communities. While patriarchal forces have resisted and co-opted these efforts, and there is still a long way to go to achieve equality, women have made real progress both inside and outside of the system.
- US politicians often describe the United States as the greatest democracy in the world. But Baker and Rodrigues-Sherley cite Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2020 report, which argues that that the United States is currently “an unsteady beacon of freedom” (7). Read pp. 7-9 of the report, which discusses the United States. How does Freedom House support the argument that the United States is “an unsteady beacon of freedom”? What does Freedom House’s argument have to do with transnational feminism?
- What is the voting gender gap? How does it manifest?
- What obstacles do women face to achieving representation in government? What are possible strategies for overcoming those obstacles?
- Baker and Rodrigues-Sherley discuss politicians such as Dilma Rousseff (Brazil), Danica Roem (United States), Marielle Franco (Brazil), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (United States), Michelle Bachelet (Chile), Cristina Fernández de Kirchne (Argentina), Laura Chinchilla (Costa Rica), and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Liberia). Working alone, with a partner, or in a small group, choose one of these politicians and do some online research. What was your subject’s path to politics? What office(s) does she hold / has she held? What values does she espouse? How do supporters and critics respond to her?
- Baker and Rodrigues-Sherley discuss US organizations that encourage women to enter the electoral process, such as Women’s Campaign Fund, Emerge America, Emily’s List, the Victory Institute, National Women’s Political Caucus, She Should Run, and Represent Women. Working alone, with a partner, or in a small group, choose one of these organizations and do some online research about it. How does your chosen organization support women’s participation in the electoral process?
- How do women participate in civil society beyond the electoral process? Provide at least three examples from the chapter. What do you learn about women’s ability to effect social change from outside of the electoral system?
- Working in a small group, add these key terms to your glossary: politics, political systems, democracy, monarchy, hereditary monarch, oligarchy, plutocracy, autocracy, compulsory voting, voluntary voting, voting gender gap, heads of state, heads of government, voting systems, voting rates, political parties, electoral systems, plurality-majority voting system, proportional representation system, mixed-member proportional system, gender-biased media coverage, descriptive representation, substantive representation, gender equality paradox, quota systems, reserved seat quotas, party quotas, legislative quotas.
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11.1 “Foto oficial da presidenta Dilma Rousseff” by Palácio do Planalto is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
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- Economic context and the welfare state, as well as political context, influence women’s political participation. Women’s political participation is greater in economically developed nations with a welfare state as well as in nations with inclusive electoral institutions and rules that produce more proportional electoral outcomes. These systems incentivize political parties to reach out to a variety of social groups. ↵