Americans are terrible at electing women to positions of power.
Since five women were elected to the U.S. Senate in what was dubbed “The Year of the Woman,” in 1992, the representation of women in national politics remains an embarrassment. Of our 100 U.S. senators, only 17 are women. In the House, women constitute 16.8 percent of the membership, or 73 out of 435.
Few developed countries have such low female participation in government.
In Madison, the fairer sex does significantly better. Of the 20 alders on the City Council, nine are female. On the Dane County Board, though, only 12 of the 37 supervisors are women.
One of those dozen women is Melissa Sargent, a 42-year-old Madison north-sider who will soon announce her candidacy for the state Assembly, where only 23 of the 99 members are female. (Rep. Kelda Helen Roys is vacating the seat, in the newly redrawn 48th District, to run for Congress)
Like many other progressive officeholders in the area, Sargent was offered help and training by Emerge Wisconsin, an organization that encourages women to run for office. Over the past six months, Sargent and two dozen other women spent one weekend per month learning the ins and outs of campaigning, from campaign finance to public speaking and new media.
Other local alumnae include Supervisors Dianne Hesselbein, Analiese Eicher, Carousel Bayrd and Alds. Sue Ellingson, Lisa Subeck and Anita Weir.
Sargent, who called the experience “intense and rewarding,” says Emerge focuses on identifying the psychological barriers that prevent more women from running for office, such as family obligations. Sargent, a mother of four and a small business owner, would be a prime example.
But part of the reason may simply be it’s tough to break old habits.
“You don’t have as many women being asked to run for office,” says Wendy Strout, the executive director of Emerge Wisconsin. “Another thing is women often don’t have the confidence to run.”
Indeed, under-representation of women is so severe in some areas that it might be hard for even the most determined women to see themselves in office. Three-quarters of town boards in the state have no women members, as do 15 percent of city councils. According to Emerge’s statistics, women hold only 900 of the 6,660 town and village board seats in the state.
“It’s really unbelievable when you delve deeper into the numbers,” says Strout.
Strout says it was similarly dispiriting numbers in California that encouraged two women there to found Emerge in 2002. Despite California’s two prominent U.S. senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, women were still far behind men on the local and state level.
Wisconsin, however, has still not had female representation in the U.S. Senate, which makes the Senate candidacy of U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, who sits on Emerge’s advisory board, all the more important to the group.