“Women in Politics” talk brings Professor Chera LaForge to campus

What can the United States learn from other countries?’ asked the poster for the inaugural Davis House Speaker Series that took place on Oct. 9 from 6 to 7 p.m. in the Woolley Room.

Indiana University East Assistant Professor of Political Science Chera LaForge drew upon her research of Congress and women in politics to discuss what the United States can learn from other countries regarding a higher number of women being elected into office and influencing subsequent legislatures.

LaForge presented data that showed that the U.S. ranks 85th of 189 countries in the percentage of women in its legislature’s lower (proportionally elected) House of Representatives. With 51% of the nations population being comprised of women, she added “There is a huge gap between the number of women and their representation in congress.”  

With the country’s ranking having moved up only six spots in the past years, LaForge said that it was a slow progression to the top and the picture of representation for American women was a bleak one. 

Rankings also showed that the U.S was first in educational attainment and sixth in economic participation. LaForge said that this indicated that women in this country are obtaining higher education and are present in the workforce at the same or even greater rates than men. 

She added that the lower rankings for issues such as political empowerment (60th) has a direct impact on planned policy outcomes. She said that there is a strong correlation between women in politics and progressive policy agendas regarding issues such as education, childcare and reproductive rights.

Changing the focus to an international perspective, the discussion moved to three success stories. The British House of Commons was ranked 65th with 22.6 percent women in office.  Although not an impressive ranking, it was an example of how women have been instrumental in passing the National Healthcare Strategy in the UK by linking it to policies that were already being discussed. Sweden ranked fifth, with 43.6 percent women in legislature and have been successful in formulating women’s issues as gender equality issues as in the case of paternity leave so that the entire family can benefit from such policies. 

The country with the best ranking of women in legislature was Rwanda with 63.8 percent. This was attributed to the large number of women present in the population and anger toward men who had been the driving force behind the genocide. 

LaForge noted that the presence of more women in Rwandan legislature has resulted in female deputies who are more comfortable, confident and at home at the legislative bodies. This has allowed the introduction of issues concerning violence against women, HIV testing and prevention, property rights for women and also military and economic policy.

LaForge also stated that the problem in getting women to run for the American political office began at an early age. This was seen in the clip of documentary ‘Miss Representation’ that showed a massive gap in the number seven-year-old and 15-year-old girls who wanted to be President when compared to their male counterparts. 

It added that there is a gendered socialization where politics and leadership is thought of as a masculine pursuit and women are discouraged from pursuing ambitious positions. 

In terms of a solution for this problem, LaForge gave examples of women’s issues organizations such as ‘Emily’s List’ that fundraises for female candidates and ‘Ask Her To Run’ that encourages people to ask qualified females to run for office. The college based “campaign- boot camp” of ‘Running Start’ was said to be important as it is seen that running for student government in high school and college paves the way for a future in political office. 

The possibility of gender quotas were also discussed, whether it be a mandatory reservation of a percentage of seats as in Rwanda or as in Sweden where the quota is voluntary at the party level. This would ensure that a certain number of women would appear on the ballot. 

LaForge added that the critique that these women are less successful or qualified is falsified by data that shows that gender quota women are more successful and efficient legislators. Yet she recognized that this would be controversial and difficult for the U.S., which has single member districts and two-step elections. 

Avi Anshika ’16 of Davis House said that they wanted to follow with their motto of “think global, act local,” and encourage such talks in interactions within the community but also going beyond the Wheaton bubble. She said that for these Speaker Series, “We go through our network of contacts to get people who can give knowledge to Wheaton students, in a way that is interesting and relevant to the community.” 

House advisor and Mellon Post-Doctoral Teaching Fellow in Political Science and International Relations Adam Irish said that this series attempts to “pull the focus on international and cultural diversity and bring in issues to Wheaton through speakers who bring interesting ideas and hopefully provoke discussion.” 

He also added that these talks also aimed to provide a connection between what students learn in class and what scholars, activists and policy makers are doing outside of it. LaForge also added that a global perspective was important in order, “To expose students in American politics to the fact that there are different kinds of electoral systems. It is important to show that our system isn’t the best or the only one available.” Davis House plans to have another Speaker Session this semester.