posted 2012-10-16 11:45:21

We Are the 17%

A panel discussing the underrepresentation of women in politics

Kaitlin McKendry

Associate Features Editor

CUNY’s Public Policy Institute, the Roosevelt House, is currently hosting a series of events focused on the election season. This series, “The Road to November,” was created to illuminate some of the issues relevant to voters. On Oct.9 the Roosevelt House hosted an event, “We are the 17%!”, a panel discussion about the underrepresentation of women in politics.

“We are the 17%” featured a panel of three women: Letitia James, Karen O’Connor, and Marie Wilson, with moderation by Pamela Stone. In the opening statement, moderator Pamela Stone, a Hunter Sociology professor, explained her involvement with gender issues, mostly those pertaining to the workplace. The panel focused on gender inequality in the political arena. Stone opened the panel discussion by stating that when compared to other countries, the United States is ranked 78th in terms of proportion of women to men who hold political office. “We have a lot to learn from other countries,” said Stone as an opener to the discussion.

Karen O’Connor, the founder and director Emerita of the Women & Politics Institute at American University, lead the panel in explaining the recent trends regarding the representation of women in politics on both a state and local level. Although she expressed her dissatisfaction with the current number of women holding office, according to O’Connor, the number of women running for office is increasing.

This year there are 18 women running for senate. In 3 races, including one in New York, the races are woman against woman, according to Stone. Wilson explained that if all the women who are currently running for office are elected, the percent of women in congress will raise to 20%.

However, very often, as O’Connor said, in these “sacrificial lamb” races, the prospect is “getting their name out there”, rather than actually winning. O’Connor said she feels it important that women are better represented in politics so that issues that pertain to women such as contraceptive rights, which are of foremost concern for most women, remain prominent issues in the political arena. O’Connor seemed despondent about the issue of women and politics as a whole and expressed her feelings that President Obama failed to appeal to women, who make up 52% of voters, in the first presidential debate.

In an attempt to brighten the mood after O’Connor’s almost cheerless discussion, Latitia James, District 25 Council Member for New York City, recalled an incident where women exercised their power to take political action. James explained that an offensive poster had been posted in the village, and after many women complained, the poster was removed within 24 hours. In her opinion, this was a demonstration of the power women can have in the political realm. James expressed her strong feelings that with the election of Christine Quinn as council speaker, women will continue to climb the political ladder, perhaps eventually culminating with a woman mayor of New York City.

Marie Wilson, founder and President Emeritus of The White House Project, former President of the Ms. Foundation, and author of Closing the Leadership Gap: Why Women Can and Must Help Run the World, spoke about the importance of mobilization of the issue. According to Wilson there is an urgent need for more programs, like the one Karen O’Connor founded at American University, that encourage a female presence in politics.

However, while an improvement, Wilson strongly emphasized the benefit of learning from the women of other countries. In reference to Latitia James’s comment that the movement must occur from “the bottom up,” Wilson expressed the need for women to recruit and advocate for the increase of women representation in office. She mentioned that in India, women politicians advocated for such an increase, and over a decade, were able to change the laws and see a 30% women’s presence in council.

As the days lead up to Nov. 6, women look to presidential candidates for representation on the issues that matter most to them. Perhaps one day, a woman will be president and women will feel reassured that their voice is being heard.

“Women want to change, they don’t get into public office in order to have power (most of them). They get in because they want to change things,” said Marie Wilson.

The recorded event can be viewed at: