Apr 1 2013

Year of the Woman, Take Two

Media define 'progress' as 1 Senate seat in 5

If you relied on major media outlets for coverage of last November’s elections, you could be forgiven for thinking women were poised to rule the country in 2013.

“From Congress to Halls of State… Women Rule,” the New York Times (1/1/13) trumpeted. “Big Gains for Women in 2012,” shouted CNN (11/7/12). “113th Congress Welcomes Benches Full of Women,” PBS (11/16/12) declared. Salon (11/6/12) was confidently matter-of-fact—“Another Year of the Woman”—as was Mother Jones (11/6/12): “2012: The Year of the Woman Senator.”

MSNBC (“Is 2012 the Year of the Woman?,” 3/15/12) and the Washington Post (“With Senate Wins for Elizabeth Warren and Others, a New Year of the Woman?,” 11/7/12) were more tentative but still optimistic.

According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, 98 women are currently serving in the United States Congress, occupying only 18 percent of congressional seats: 78 in the House and a record 20 in the Senate.

Yet according to CNN’s Halimah Abdullah (11/7/12), “In some quarters, Election Day 2012 turned into ladies night.” Of New Hampshire’s status as the first state to send an all-female delegation to Washington, the New York Times’ Katharine Q. Seelye (1/1/13) wryly noted, “And the matriarchy does not end there.”

Just over 20 years ago, 1992 was dubbed the “Year of the Woman” (Extra!, 9/92) when congressional elections tripled the number of women then serving in the Senate—to six. (Forty-eight women served in the House.)

The number of women in Congress has less than doubled since those “watershed” elections. At the rate of progress we’ve maintained over the last 20 years, it will take American women until 2090 to achieve equal representation in Congress.

In other words, men may not need to seek refuge from the coming “matriarchy” just yet.

Women of 113th Congress--Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Women of 113th Congress–Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the media are overawed by such paltry gains because women are comparably poorly represented in the upper echelons of most media outlets. In 2012, women represented 19.1 percent of local radio news directors and 30.2 percent of local TV news directors (RTNDA, 10/22/12). In newspaper newsrooms, women are only 34.2 percent of supervisors (ASNE, 2012). And only twelve women solo hosts and three women co-hosts appeared on 2012’s “Heavy Hundred” (4/12), Talkers magazine’s list of the 100 most important radio talk show hosts in America. Even small gains for women likely feel like a rising tide to reporters ensconced in a boys’ club of their own.

“These women did not rise to the top together overnight…. Each toiled in the political vineyards…and campaigned hard for her job,” observed the Times’ Seelye (1/1/13). Salon’s Irin Carmon (11/6/12) quoted Jess McIntosh of the feminist PAC EMILY’s List: “We had done the decades of work to find these women.” Added Carmon, “No easy feat, since women generally need to be asked to run several times.”

The implication is that the women who ran for office prior to 2012 didn’t campaign hard or toil long enough. If it’s true that women must often be cajoled into running, why not ask “why”? Is it because they are generally less ambitious than men? Or do they quite reasonably consider politics a hostile environment?

Global context is also notably scarce in the rosy coverage of this second “Year of the Woman.” The U.S. is currently ranked number 55 in the category of “political empowerment” on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2012. Women are better represented in the national legislatures of Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Estonia and Honduras than they are in the U.S. Congress (InterParliamentary Union, 12/31/12). But aside from notable exceptions like Nina Burleigh at the New York Observer (11/3/12) and Kate Sheppard at Mother Jones (11/20/12), few mentioned such inconvenient facts.

Did most in the media decline to raise this point for fear of being labeled unpatriotic? Or did they simply assume that women’s political prospects were even dimmer in other parts of the world?

For every woman who has won her race, there have been many more like Jean Lloyd-Jones, a state senator from Iowa who earned the Democratic nomination for a Senate seat in 1992 but lost the general election. “I really felt that we were paving the way for a huge number of women, but the promise of 1992 was never realized,” Lloyd-Jones told the Washington Post (3/24/12).

Until the media learn to do more than recycle headlines about how far women have come, we risk squandering the promise of 2012 as well.

Raina Lipsitz writes and edits short stories about herself and others at Imaginary
and has published in the Atlantic online, the Brooklyn Rail, McSweeney’s, Nerve and Ploughshares.