Gender disparity remains in politics

News Assistant

When Vice-Presidential nominee Sarah Palin proclaimed her intent to run alongside Senator John McCain, intensified to debate already taking place across the country regarding the role women play in politics.

At a discussion panel, “Women, Politics and You,” held last Tuesday night, coupled with a luncheon earlier that day, four female Pepperdine professors discussed this very issue.  The event was organized by senior Sarah Schott, an intern for women’s studies, and the Inter-Cultural Affairs office as a way of bringing light to possible obstacles women face in the political arena.

The United States is ranked 69th out of 150 countries for equality of representation in government, and some are left searching for an explanation. Pepperdine professor of journalism and adviser for the Graphic, Elizabeth Smith, sat on the panel.

“The media seems to still stereotype women,” Smith said. “They either need to be a Hillary Clinton — so smart, feisty but kind of doughty — or they need to be a much more of a sex kitten. Because men are the norm in politics, people feel the need to put women politicians into a box because we haven’t quite figured them out yet.”

Whether or not American culture decides to “figure them out” seems to be of concern to some Pepperdine students looking to make their way into the political field. 

“I would love to get involved in politics after I graduate,” said junior Katie McDonald. “I know it’s pretty hard to get to that point, though, because you don’t really see many women in those positions. But we’ll just have to see.”

But, with the appointment of Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House, Hillary Clinton still receiving support for her presidential run and Sarah Palin, a major contender for the position of United States Vice President, many would agree the representation of women in American politics is improving. It could be quite the opposite, however, according to former state press   secretary for Senator John Kerry, Julia Piscitelli.

“The whole idea that because woman politicians are suddenly getting more exposure, there are suddenly more of them out there is what is known as ‘the myth of more,’” Piscitelli said. “The truth is that Nancy Pelosi and Sarah Palin have always been there, they are just now getting more media attention.”

One thought Piscitelli suggested as a possible solution to the gender disparity was the idea of redistricting. She explained that there are certain districts considered friendly towards female candidates, and nearly one-third of them are in California. If more districts were redrawn to create an equal amount of support on both sides of the gender gap, elections would represent a better “equal opportunity” verdict, according to Piscitelli.

But, even getting the opportunity to campaign for these spots is an issue, according to California State Legislature Assembly Member and Santa Monica resident Julia Brownley.

“In terms of being a candidate, there is a huge difference from running as a woman and the ‘good ole boys’ club,” Brownley said. “When I was a candidate, I quickly realized that receiving donations is much more of a man’s world and you feel as if you have to work just that much harder as a woman. I think the playing field is getting better, though.”

But, where does the playing field begin? Associate Dean for Student Affairs, Tabatha Jones, who participated in the discussion panel, said equality in politics begins in the classroom. In 1979, only 29 percent of all degrees received were awarded to women. This number increased to 58 percent in 2003, which Jones said shows significant steps towards equality.

“We can now talk about how we have made impressive strides in education and how this will help us as women, make informed decisions about politics,” Jones said. “But, we must not divorce this conversation from who we elect to be agents of change in our society and how that will affect us and the role we will see women take.”

With the presidential election little more than a month away, it is uncertain as to whether America will see its first African-American president, or its first female vice president. As such, only time will tell the role women will play in the government.

“If Palin gets elected and does wonderfully in office, then it will be great,” said Professor of Political Science Candice Ortbals, who was also a member of the panel. “If she goes down in flames, then it will just reinforce the stereotype we seem to be stuck with.”

Submitted 10-02-2008