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Women in Politics

03/25/08 5:55PM
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(HOST) Commentator Madeleine Kunin is a former governor of Vermont, who thinks that despite this year's presidential race, not enough women are elected to public office.

(KUNIN) All the talk this primary season has been about electing the first woman President or the first African-American President. It's easy to understand why: either one would make history.

Scant attention has been paid to women running for other offices - city councils, state legislatures, and the Congress. The assumption is that women have arrived: the days of gender inequality are over.

The figures tell a different story. In doing research for my book on women and politics, I discovered one recurrent statistic - 16 percent.

Sixteen percent is the percentage of women in the U.S. Congress, a record high. Sixteen percent is also the percentage of women in top corporate positions as board members and vice presidents, despite the fact that women have comprised 50 percent of middle management positions for fifteen years.

The 16 percent figure emerged a third time, according to a 2007 U.N. study of the percentage of women in the lower houses of Parliaments around the world. In that same study the United States ranked 71st, out of more than 140 countries.

The country of my birth, Switzerland, where women won the right to vote in 1971, does far better than we do.

Even Iraq and Afghanistan have more women in their Parliaments. At the urging of the United States, their constitutions include a 25 percent quota for women - Iraq met it and Afghanistan exceeded it.

Three countries have elected female presidents in recent years: Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia, Michele Bechelet in Chile, and Angela Merkel in Germany. None of these women were expected to win; all were a sharp contrast to the men who had preceded them.

It is time for American women to mobilize to elect more women to office at all levels.

The reason for doing so is simple: the United States should have a government that represents our population. Issues such as children's health insurance, paid family leave, and wage discrimination become tangible when women tell their stories.

Finland was the first country to permit women to run for office in 1907. It has consistently ranked near the top in women's political participation and has a female president. Finland was recently lauded for having the best education test scores amongst 51 countries.

To everyone's surprise, the country with the highest percentage of women in its Parliament - 48.8 percent - is Rwanda. I asked a Senator who had survived the genocide, why? She replied, "We knew we had to do this for the survival of our children."

So do we.
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