Off the sidelines, into politics

Yesterday’s New York Times featured an article about Kristin Gillibrand’s advocacy for women in government. As part of her campaign for reelection in 2012, Gilibrand started Off the Sidelines, a group that on its website says it wants women to realize “that they can make a difference, with their vote, with their advocacy, with their candidacy.”

Party politics aside, the NYT article cites some alarming statistics about women’s participation in government. The percentage of women in Congress dropped last year for the first time in three decades. Women hold only 16% of seats in Congress. Only 6 of the 50 states have female governors.

Gilibrand is a different breed of politician than Michelle Bachman and Sarah Palin. Instead of selling you a certain brand of pioneer feminism, Gilibrand is calling for a movement. Sure, it’s part of her campaign. But it’s also an astute recognition of a chronically under-recognized problem: there’s a glass ceiling for women in politics. With phone hackings and debt ceilings dominating the national stage, plus the widely held belief that feminism is a movement failed and project accomplished, discussion of those particular gender barriers is often shunted aside.

Gilibrand isn’t immune to the glass ceiling either.  In the article, she says she encountered embedded sexism when she was well along in her law career. And despite her many accomplishments, Gilibrand is widely recognized by Senator Harry Reid’s infamous descriptor: she’s “a hottie.”  But Gilibrand’s also  been getting a lot of press lately. I’m glad, because I think she’s right to issue a call to action to women. So off the sidelines, ladies—it’s time to get in the arena.


23 Comments on “Off the sidelines, into politics”

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  1. Well Gillibrand went from being a corporate lawyer to Congresswoman to appointed US senator in a little over two years. That’s a pretty meteoric rise in electoral politics term, not quite a long hard slog.

  2. Pete Klein says:

    I think she is doing a good job. In the north country, women seem to do well in politics. Not so much at the Federal level.
    Legally, women have all the rights they need, just like blacks and many others who have been oppressed for years. Problem is: have legal rights doesn’t always translate into actual rights.

  3. Pete: bear in mind that you now pretty much have to be a millionaire or at least quite well off to compete in electoral politics. Gillibrand was initially selected as a Dem candidate because she was independently wealthy (she was a corporate lawyer, her husband a venture capitalist) and she had a lot of contacts. If you’re not an heir or heiress or lottery winner, the way you become rich is via the business world… which has its own glass ceiling.

  4. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    My first question is, who is this Sarah Harris?

    Beyond that my comment is that I believe women, today, are more responsible for the glass ceiling than men, at least in some ways.

    An example for consideration: Hillary Clinton. Why was Hillary not the Democratic Presidential candidate in the 2008 election? Why didn’t women line up behind her immediately?
    When I ask that sort of question about Hillary or similar questions about any number of other women in powerful positions I find that the discussion goes astray from issues relating directly to politics or business, etc, and to discussions of hairstyles, clothing, relationship issues, issues of character (you know, the “bitch” word–oops I mean the “b” word).

    Seriously, think about it. I think women are harder on women in positions of power than men are, by and large.

  5. Lucy Martin says:

    Hi Knuck (May I call you Knuck?)

    In Ellen Rocco’s words, Sarah has “rejoined our staff (she was a Middlebury intern with us last summer) as a gal with many hats: digital department work, news assignments, and part-time announcer.”

    Here is a farewell blog from Sarah back in 2010.

    I live in the Ottawa area but I had the pleasure of meeting Sarah at an NCPR-sponsored workshop in Canton last November. (I thought she was scary smart. As in, good thing I am not competing with her for a job!!)

    I also recently had the pleasure of driving to the station and meeting new staffers Nora Flaherty and Julie Grant, as well as summer intern Steve Knight. (All of whom are pictured here.)

    But that’s still not everyone. Read more news team bios and archives here.

  6. Lucy Martin says:

    Say, did you like that post from Barb Heller about the Madrid Bluegrass festival? Not sure how that happened.

    Let me try again to post the link for Sarah’s “So long farewell” blog post from August of

    I hope this works. Sarah wouldn’t mess it up twice! ;-)

  7. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Thanks for the update Lucy, and you can call me anything you want. I guarantee I’ve been called worse.

    Now, back to my point. Why are there more women, as a percentage of population, in the Afghan Parliament than there are in the US Congress?

    Why have women reached the highest or second highest political office in countries like Pakistan, Indonesia, Turkey, Israel, India, Argentina, (this could go on for a long time), and not in the US?

    And Canada could do better, too.

  8. Pete Klein says:

    Let me look at the female situation in politics from another angle.
    Knuck, you and others mention from time to time about women having more success in places such as Pakistan, Indonesia and other far flung places. I find it interesting but not much in practical, day to day terms.
    As a man (and I think my response would be the same if I were a woman) non of the countries mentioned is some place I would want to visit, let alone live in.
    I sometimes wonder why anyone, man or women, would want to enter politics. The absolute worst job I can think of is being President of the United States. So maybe the answer here is that women are smarter than men?

  9. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Of course there’s Rep Allen West out there calling Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) “vile, despicable and cowardly,” and “not a lady.”

    As if vile, despicable and cowardly are equivalent to “not a lady.” I wonder what he considers “ladylike” to be?

  10. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Pete, I am not suggesting that any of those countries is a paragon of virtue — certainly not Pakistan. But you have to wonder, if a woman can reach the highest public positions of power in fundamentalist Islamic societies why is there such difficulty here where we are supposedly so much more enlightened?

    My answer to that question is that we aren’t as enlightened as we pretend we are; that we are in many ways very similar to some of the fundamentalists we despise.
    Let’s hope we grow up a little.

  11. Ellen Rocco says:

    This sidebar:
    In my early years in public radio, there seemed to be a disproportionate number of women in all positions except station manager and engineer. And then, like a glass ceiling shattering on my head it hit me: public radio did not pay enough to attract “primary breadwinners” (i.e., men). About 8 years ago, when I was first elected to the NPR Board, I was shocked to find that the Board was overwhelmingly comprised of men (of 15 members, two women including me). But the Board is largely (10 out of 15) comprised of station managers. This is how power works: the more you have, the more you get.

    When NCPR submits federal grants, we still get an extra point or two in the judging because we are recognized as a “woman-managed” entity. This is good for NCPR but kind of depressing in the big view: this affirmative action (albeit tepid) still necessary in 2011 to attempt to address an entrenched culture in which the top managerial positions are still largely held by men. It’s changing some, but very gradually.

    In politics, I agree with the earlier comment that money, at the state and federal levels, is essential to success. And, most of the wealth in this country is still controlled by men.

    Having said all this, I also agree with another comment above: the US presidency has got to be about the worst job in the world. On the other hand, I would consider being crowned queen…

  12. Walker says:

    Back to the original post: I was surprised by the line “the widely held belief that feminism is a movement failed and project accomplished.” Surely that should read “movement failed OR project accomplished”? And I would hope that there is far more of the latter belief than of the former.

    While feminism clearly accomplished a great deal, as the discussion here demonstrates, it’s got a long way to go.

  13. Bret4207 says:

    Well, considering the truly vile and disgusting way so many of our candidates and their families are treated, what would draw someone to serve- other than fame, fortune and power? Take the fortune and power out of it and maybe we’d have less Wall St corporate lawyers in gov’t and more people who were there to make a difference for the nation instead of their portfolio.

  14. Pete Klein says:

    For most people a job is a job and the pay is the number one reason for taking it. The bottom line is always there, even when there are other reasons for taking the job.
    I think it is quite obvious why many people who have already made or inherited a substantial amounts of money will go into politics. Their money has already established their name and given them many contacts. With their wealth secured, they then, not all but some, decide to go into politics for one or two reasons.
    One is simply to get their name in the history books, a form of immortality. The other is to push a personal agenda. The agenda could be selfish but could also be altruistic.
    While percentages are interesting, I don’t believe they should weigh too heavily. If you vote for or against a person on the basis of race, creed, color, political party, sex or sexual orientation, in my view you are not being an intelligent voter.

  15. “Why have women reached the highest or second highest political office in countries like Pakistan, Indonesia, Turkey, Israel, India, Argentina, (this could go on for a long time), and not in the US?”

    Fair question, but bear in mind those women haven’t always been treated wonderfully. Benazir Bhutto and Indira Gandhi were assassinated. Isabel Peron was deposed in a military coup. Kumaratunga in Sri Lanka survived several assassination attempts…

    In most cases, women who rose to power in those countries were helped by a history in power. Kumaratunga’s mother and Bhutto’s father were presidents. Indira’s father was prime minister as was that of Shekih Hassina in Bangladesh. Several succeeded spouses who were president or opposition leader (Peron and Fernandez in Argentina, Cory Aquino in the Philippines. Of course men benefit from this as well (Bush Jr., the current President Aquino) but I think it’s harder for women anywhere (like Thatcher) to work their way up from scratch without those connections and name recognition than men, especially in a place like the US where money rules.

  16. Sarah Harris says:

    Walker – the ‘and’ was intentional. It strikes me that a lot of people think that feminism accomplished its aims as women gained legal legal rights, began working in the public sphere and outside the home, etc. Often those same people deride second wave feminism, and say things like “I’m not a feminist, but I believe in equal rights for men and women.”
    Feminsim is a fraught term, sure. But it remains a relevant project–like you, I believe that there is much work to be done. And I am not afraid of the term feminist. In fact, it strikes me that a way to make the term appealing is through a call to action and political activity like that issued by Kristin Gilibrand.

  17. Pete Klein says:

    Words are funny things. They sometimes have unintended consequences.
    I wonder if part of the problem for the word “feminist” could be its male opposite in the word “chauvinist.” I know this is a bit like comparing apples and oranges but the mind often connects things that are not the same.

  18. Bob S says:

    Would someone please define for me the term “pioneer feminism” ? I’m stumped by that one.

  19. Pete Klein says:

    Bob, I think it was Sarah Palin who said, “I kind of feel a connection to that tough, gun-toting, pioneer feminism of women like Annie Oakley.”
    Another example of the idea could be Jane Fonda as Cat Balou.

  20. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I think that for many of a certain generation the word “feminism” became not an inclusive word but a divisive word. Pete brings up Jane Fonda (of the Fonda NY Fonda’s) who is a very good example; hero or villain? (note, I didn’t say “heroine” or “villianess”).

    In the late 60’s and early 70’s there were so many factions, the bra-burners, the radical feminists, the man-haters, and the women who just wanted to have the same rights as everyone else. Forty years later things haven’t really changed all that much. Compare and contrast the gay rights movement from Stonewall to today–same exact timeframe, and I might argue that gays have done better for their cause than women have.

    There are far more women than there are gays.

  21. Bob S says:

    Thanks Pete. Now I guess I wonder if the term was used in a derogatory sense in the article, and if so, why.

  22. Bret4207 says:

    Interesting view point Knuck. Divisive is the word I was looking for. I don’t think it matters what your “cause” is, to some people it will be divisive. Conservative causes are viewed as divisive by liberals, religious causes viewed as divisive by other religions or non-religious people, etc. Personally, having grown up to “I am woman hear me roar!” (Ack! Heard it a few weeks back, it stunk!), Virginia Slims being a “feminist” cigarette (??? Got me.), the bra burnings and move from the mini skirt to the maxi dress to the pants suit…it’s all sort of anti climatic now. All I know is that I have seen sexism directed towards men by women that was just as blatant and wrong as any directed at women by men. Isn’t that equality?

  23. Mervel says:

    I think it depends on the field.

    I work in an agency and field where men are in the minority at least up here, in fact right now I am one of 2 men in an agency consisting of around 35 employees. However of course it is a lower paying field that has traditionally been more open to women.

    This is a great article from the New Yorker about women still breaking into higher paying fields which are still dominated by men:

    I think a larger question is do women want to model what men have created in the first place? I mean killing yourself chasing a career at the possible expense of a full life, personal relationships and children; is not always that appealing, at least for me and I am a man. No one can have it all and I think this may be part of the myth that was sold to all of us including women.

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