When I was pregnant for the first time and learned that my baby was a girl, I was overjoyed. Though I would have been happy with a boy, in all my dreams of motherhood the baby in the carriage was female. I dreamed of dressing up my baby and toddler in tiny, lovely clothes; of jointly commiserating one day over periods and boys and the search for the perfect bra; of teaching my smart and clever girl to be brave and strong and fierce the way I believed, even as a kid, that girls should and could naturally be.
My dream came true, times two. My two daughters, now 6 and 8, have worn many pretty dresses and muddy soccer uniforms. They are strong and fierce.
There are a lot of unique challenges we face as parents of girls. But the one that has emerged, for me, as ever more perplexing than some boy trouble or anxiety about a spelling test is this: How to explain to my girls why the power structure that drives the world they live in is so obviously, disappointingly, frustratingly male-dominated. Why, to put it simply, are there so many women in the population but so few women in the positions that control the things which matter most?
Why aren’t my daughters reflected and represented in the government that determines their rights, freedoms and lives?
What do I say when they innocently ask, “Mom, why is there never a girl president?”
These are the questions the new documentary Raising Ms. President, directed by Kiley Lane Parker and which began as a Kickstarter project, explores. I attended one of the first screenings of this film on Wednesday night in Seattle, where my clinging but often suppressed frustrations about the political inequities of women in the United States were both reignited and partly assuaged with the hope for change.
There is a huge problem in our country, an elephant in the national living room, the documentary confirms. The United States ranks smack in the dead middle of nearly 200 nations in the world in terms of the percentage of Congress/legislature seats held by women, behind Afghanistan and Iraq.
The statistics are both familiar and sobering: Women make up only 18 percent of Congress and 24 percent of state legislators in 2013, despite comprising more than half of the U.S. population, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.
Fifty percent less women than men consider running for office; of those, 30 percent less actually run, with only a fraction seeking higher office, according to a 2005 study. Women of color represent only 4.5% of Congress but 18 percent of the U.S. population.
But as fast as you can say “Vote for [insert the name of a fabulous girl or woman you know here],” the groundwork for a revolution and evolution is being cleverly and doggedly laid by women across all segments of our communities and society, building on the efforts of generations before us but demanding with louder and less patient urgency to Change. Things. Now.
The filmmakers interview politicians in federal, state and local government, social scientists, academics, nonprofit advocates and tweens and teens to explore why the system is the way it is and to take the pulse on actions for change.
In a telling scene that really shook me to the core as a mother, one well-spoken, intelligent and motivated teenage girl participating in Running Start, an organization dedicated to bringing young women to politics, was asked why she was uncomfortable considering a future in public office.
She began to squirm, blush and stammer and suddenly had trouble looking at the camera.
“Do you think girls can run for office?” the young woman was asked by the interviewer.
“Boys have more confidence … ” said the suddenly uncomfortable girl, who in all other respects functions as a leader among her peers and within the program.
She squirmed again, faltering to find the words to explain: Boys “more often think, ‘I’m the best, I can do it, I can win . . . ’”
We are left to read between her words, and we do. We can see and palpably feel the internal conflict of this girl, who easily could be Everygirl, as she tries to reconcile her belief in herself with the script society has given her since birth, and it makes us realize uncomfortably that we all have a role in this problem and its solution.
From the moment we learn an infant’s sex, people’s attitudes align along historical stereotypes, says Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the science director of the Greater Good Science Center.“That social impact … defines how they grow.”
Among other culprits for the uneven representation of women in politics, including discrimination/deliberate exclusion — which the film touches on but doesn’t explore in depth — is something going on very early on in our children’s development, reinforced even by girls’ own families and communities, said Richard Fox, department chair of Political Science at LMU Los Angeles. “Most people don’t just decide to run for office early,” he said. They have the idea from very early on, via the confidence to think about themselves in a leadership role.
“It might be that women aren’t socialized for politics,” we are told by Stephanie Coontz, author and Director of Research and Public Education for the Council on Contemporary Families. Part of the problem, she indicates, is that young girls and women today do not realize what a short span of time has actually passed since the days when women in the United States were little more than legal chattel to their husbands.
The young generations of women take their freedoms for granted, Coontz tells us, and therefore they aren’t afraid enough to push forward as hard and urgently as they need to into the highest forms of leadership. Women also aren’t recruited for politics as much as they need to be, experts say.
Cultural assumptions, misunderstandings and stereotypes surface again and again in the film, even from those who need or are calling for equality. A girl at a prep school in Oakland comments about how late nights, lawmaking and dinner prep just don’t go together. “It just wouldn’t work out with the family,” she says, heart-breakingly, as though that’s that.
Most men don’t have to worry about day care or aren’t concerned with reproductive health, Congressman John Yarmuth (D–Ky.) says on camera. I beg to differ; many young fathers I know are scrambling for day care and cooking dinner. Roughly equal shares of working mothers and fathers report in a recent Pew Research Center survey feeling stressed about juggling work and family life: 56 percent of working moms and 50 percent of working dads say they find it very or somewhat difficult to balance these responsibilities.
Yet we know that even in young, dual-income families, there’s no such thing yet as egalitarianism. Roughly 60 percent of two-parent households with children under age 18 have two working parents, according to Pew. In those households, on average, fathers spend more time than mothers in paid work, while mothers spend more time on child care and household chores.
Despite the depressing statistics about women in politics, the film confirms this one most important idea about the gender imbalance in politics and power: Things will not improve for girls and women if more women aren’t elected.
Viewers are introduced to some powerful organizations working for change, including Running Start and IGNITE, and we hear from female politicians about why it’s critical that we all support girls and women in running for and being elected to office. There’s not much discussion about the roles of schools, curriculum and the parents of boys in emphasizing and helping to create a more balanced and representative system, though, reflecting a gap in support and recognition that is certainly contributing to the inequality.
After watching the film, I’m inspired and moved by some ideas, but I’m still not sure what the exact recipe for solution is. The film explores, but doesn’t really uncover, where political ambition begins, and how. But it inspires us to keep asking the question.
Surely it will take a multi-pronged, gritty and broadly supported approach to correct for hundreds of years of disproportion (and good resources). But as I look at my own two girls, smart and powerful and gritty themselves, I have to believe we will do it.
In between school drop-offs and coffee binges, Natalie Singer-Velush is ParentMap’s Web Editor. In her former life she wrote for newspapers and once pumped milk in the bathroom of the King County Superior Courthouse while covering a murder trial. Natalie lives in Seattle with her husband and their two school-aged daughters.