Vote vs. Voice: Women in American Democracy

as seen on the Hill

The numbers are in and the conclusion is clear: women’s votes turn elections. Women have outvoted men in every election since the 1980’s and even in 2014, with the lowest voter turnout in 72 years, women comprised 51 percent of the electorate. Women are more likely than men to be registered to vote and are turning out to volunteer and campaign for candidates they support in high numbers (for example, Obama’s staff in 2012 estimated that 60% of their volunteers were women). Both ends of the political spectrum are turning themselves inside out to earn the votes of increasingly educated and influential women. Indeed, women today are leading in unprecedented ways – running major corporations, starting businesses and, as of this term, better represented in Congress than ever before.

But despite these positive trends, women are far from realizing the promise of an equal voice in our political process. In fact, women may be lagging further behind in terms of political empowerment than any other social category. Once they vote, extremely low numbers of women are actually following through and holding elected officials accountable for what they designated them to do. Public officials receive approximately two million more letters or calls from men than from women each year. And while women are just as likely as men to turn up at town hall meetings, they are far less likely to speak up once they’re there.

Women are less likely to read about politics; to attempt to influence others on political issues; to make political contributions; to believe they understand current political issues; or believe they’d ever be qualified to run for office. All of these points of engagement are critical. A study by the non-partisan Congressional Management Foundation found that letter writing, town halls and direct meetings with representatives are all critical in helping to shape the voting patterns of members of Congress. The bottom line: women are turning elections but not the aftermath of those outcomes. It’s a reality women themselves have the power to change – and we can create the tools, resources, and communities to support their engagement.

Last week, with the support of leaders from private sector companies including Google, Deloitte, EY, PwC and Daimler as well as representatives Elise Stefanik and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, we launched the All In Together Campaign (AIT) to spark a national conversation about the role of women in political and civic life. The mission of AIT is to bring people together – across parties and across the private, public, non-profit and academic sectors – to shape a groundbreaking agenda of leadership and civic action to finally close the stubborn and stagnant gender gaps that continue to limit women’s voices in our national agenda.

It’s important to note that engaging women more fully in our political process does not necessarily mean we must only engage them around “women’s issues.” A recent Pew poll found American women considered the economy, terrorism, income inequality, healthcare and the environment to all be “very important” issues. American women are hugely diverse and have diverse interests, passions and priorities. The call to action is not that women should all agree on a few issues that matter most for them as a monolith. Instead, the call to action is to ensure that all women’s perspectives – whatever they may be – are considered on all issues. Women must speak up more vigorously and elected officials must also work to better engage with and understand what women want from them.

Having more women in Congress certainly helps bridge this gap. As Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), the youngest women ever elected to Congress, said at our launch, “I think that one of the most important roles that women elected officials can play is to make sure that the perspective of women is represented across all policy issues. Oftentimes you’re the only woman in the room so making sure whatever the policies are – healthcare, economic – that you speak up and make sure the female perspective is represented.” But they can’t do it alone. The impact of citizen advocacy and engagement is essential. Without a strong showing of women actively voicing their opinions to congress, female representatives may find they’re shouting into the wind.

Our vision is simple but important. To ensure American women have agency and impact on the issues they care about most. In 2015, we’re committed to convening women to talk about the policy issues that affect them (both personally and professionally) and increasing the number of interactions between women and their representatives. We do not have to agree on every issue but we must speak up and fully participate in shaping the future of our nation for our communities, our families, and ourselves.

You can access the original article on The Hill website.