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U.S. Lags When it Comes to Women in Politics, Professors Say

Laura Chinchilla (G’89)

Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla (G’89) is one of five female heads of state in Latin America. Georgetown professors say the United States lags behind Europe and Latin America when it comes to women in politics.

March 8, 2012 – The Year of the Woman was declared in 1992, but two decades later, the United States still lags behind Europe and Latin America in electing female officials, says Valeria Buffo, director of Georgetown’s Political Database of the Americas.

Diana Owen

Diana Owen

“Europe has seven women who are heads of state,” says Buffo, whose database is housed within Georgetown’s Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS). “There are five in the Americas. The United States is advanced in so many ways, but we’ve yet to have a female leader.”

Diana Owen, associate professor of political science, says the 2012 elections don’t look any more promising for increasing numbers of women in office.

More of the Same

In 1992, the so-called “Year of the Woman,” a record 24 women were elected to the House and four to the Senate.

“Here it is 20 years later, and we’ve gotten no better,” says Owen, also director of American studies. “The one improvement might be in some places where we had women running against women [in 2010], but in terms of greater representation, that really didn’t happen.”

No viable female presidential candidates have surfaced this year for the general election ticket, and the numbers don’t look good for congressional contests, she says.

“I think it’s going to be more of the same, but we still don’t know what some of the areas are going to look like after the lines are drawn for the new districts,” the professor says. “There were a record number of Republican women who got on the ballot to run in the primaries for Congress. Of those, a handful survived and even a smaller number made it the whole way.”

More than 30 women have run for U.S. presidential office in the last 140 years, most of them representing smaller political parties, according to the National Women’s History Museum.

Americas vs. America

“We came really close this last time to at least having a viable woman on the ticket with Hillary Clinton in 2008,” Owen adds.

The professor notes that female candidates still face significant challenges, including gaining support within the heavily male-dominated political parties and unfair media scrutiny persistent perceptions.

Owen and Buffo recently participated in a Georgetown conference, “Political Women in the Americas,” in which scholars examined how women’s political roles have evolved in Latin and North America.

Latina Heads of State

Ricardo Ortiz

Ricardo Ortiz

Latin America’s female heads of state include President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina, President Dilma Rouseff of Brazil, President Laura Chinchilla (G’89) of Costa Rica, Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller of Jamaica and Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar of Trinidad and Tobago.

Legislative seats held by women in Latin America average about 20 to 23 percent, says Buffo, with women in Bolivia and Argentina holding 44.4 percent of Senate seats and 35.8 percent of Chamber of Deputies seats.

Comparatively, about 17 percent of women hold seats in U.S. Congress.

Ricardo Ortiz, an associate professor on faculty in CLAS, organized the Feb. 23-24 conference. He says the gains are extraordinary, but there is still more work to do.

“Rates of women’s participation in formal politics have flattened in recent years before reaching parity with men’s participation, so partly that means that there is a problem there that needs addressing,” he says.

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