Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Seeking Parity.

Well elections have come and gone both in Canada and the US, and some are asking — but what of the goal of advancing women in political leadership?

How long will it take us? We already are well into the fourth decade since the contemporary women’s movement of the 1970s spawned a generation that sought to claim an equal place in the halls of power.

Women make up 52% of Canada’s population, yet we represent roughly 20% of elected politicians on municipal, provincial and federal levels.  Currently Canada sits in 44th place in the world on the Inter-Parlimentary Unions ranking of countries by representation of women in government.  The breakdown is as follows:


Seats in the House of Commons – 308

Number of Seats held by Women: 65

Percentage – 21.1%

Seats in the Senate – 105 (90 currently sitting)

Number of Seats held by Women – 32

Percentage – 35.6%

Total – 24.4%

In Still Counting, authors Linda Trimble and Jane Arscott argue that:

an “electoral glass ceiling” is keeping women at or below the 25 per cent mark, restricting women to less than half of the seats that would be theirs in a democracy committed to balanced, equitable and fair representation. Moreover, little is being done to address this ongoing democratic deficit. Despite drawbacks, such as the “revolving door” for female party leaders and continued sexism in legislatures, women can, and do, make a difference in politics. That’s why it’s important to elect many more, and more diverse, women to Canada’s parliament and legislatures.

In our most recent election, Prime Minister Stephen Harper increased the amount of women his cabinet up from seven in the last session. Women now make up 29% of the cabinet, comparable to the ratio from Paul Martin’s Liberal cabinet in 2003-04 (30%) and up from 22% in the last cabinet.

In the US, prior to 2008, the only female candidate to ever to run for national office on a major-party ticket, and was selected, not elected, as a vice presidential candidate was 1984 Geraldine Ferraro 24 years ago.  

Both in the primary and the general election much has been debated about both the progress and regression this election cycle has created for women. But even as the highest glass ceiling in American politics came the closest it ever has to being shattered, in Congress it was business as usual: Women made a net gain of one seat in the Senate, bringing the total to 17 out of 100, and three seats in the House, moving up from 71 to 74 out of 435 seats, or 17%.

Not everyone thinks this is good enough news though:

But what this means is that as the class of 2008 enters the Capitol’s marble halls, it will include less than half the number of women who first won office in 1992 — the so-called “year of the woman.”

Currently the US sits in 71st place in the world with the follow breakdown:

United States

Seats in the House of Representatives – 435

Number of Seats held by women – 74

Percentage – 16.8%

Seats in the Senate – 100

Number of Seats held by women – 17

Percentage – 17%

Total – 16.9%

While these numbers are disappointing, there is some progress being made:

At the state level, the pipeline into federal office, there were some bright spots in 2008: A record number of women, 2,328, ran for state legislatures in a presidential election year, surpassing the previous presidential-year record of 2,302 set in 1992. (The overall record was set in 2006, when 2,429 women ran. More state legislative seats are up for election in non-presidential election years.)

“So 2008 was a record, and it managed to get us from 23.7 percent of women serving in state legislatures to 24.2 percent,” says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Another bright spot emerged in New Hampshire, where women now hold a majority in the state Senate, 13 out of 24 seats – the first state legislative body in US history to be majority female. New Hampshire, and New England in general, has a history of electing women to office, owing to a tradition of citizen part-time legislators. In New Hampshire, the annual pay for legislators is $100, plus travel reimbursement.

Overall, when the totals of each state’s legislative bodies are combined, Colorado ranks No. 1 for female representation, with 38 percent. Vermont has 37.8 percent, and New Hampshire, 37.7 percent.

“Once we drop the decimal points, we know that women will have arrived,” writes former Vermont Gov. Madeleine Kunin in a blog. In an interview, she notes that the citizen-legislator model of her state is what allowed her to get into politics when her four children were young.

In contrast, South Carolina now has no women in its state senate.

On the higher end of the Inter-Parlimentary Unions list, Germany sits at 32% and Sweden at 47% – however no country in the world represents the female populace at 52% where it sits around the globe. So where does that leave us?  

In Canada, we set a record of success this election.  And the US?  According to Marie Wilson, president of the White House Project, an organization working to advance women in leadership.

“At this rate, it will take us till 2063 to reach parity.  I mean, come on! We have to speed things up.”

For more information on the advancement of women in politics, please visit Equal Voice and The Center for American Women in Politics.


  1. nrafter530

    we had this conversation here over the weekend. I asked a friend of mine if Italy would be ever have a woman Prime Minister. She shrugged and said “I don’t know, probably.” I asked if she ever thought about it and she said “Not really.” and she finished by saying “I just assume it’ll happen when it’ll happen”

    Italy does slightly better than the US in gender parity but I found it interesting I spoke to someone who just didn’t think of the world like that. I don’t know if it’s purely an American thing because women (and minorities) had to jump through hoops to even vote, but here, it’s not a big deal.

  2. NavyBlueWife

    Parity in an administration would be easier to achieve than parity in elected office, mainly because I don’t think that women run in the same numbers as men do.

    We can have a nature/nurture argument until we are blue in the face and keeled over dead on that one, but my experience has shown me that women don’t have that desire to run for political office, even the ones that are super competitive like me.  During my time in Minnesota, I attended a fundraiser for a group supporting women, regardless of party, for getting elected to office.  The problem, in their eyes, was that getting women to run was the problem.  When they got a woman to run, they had great successes, but of course, everything was not 100%.

    Will there be parity in every field?  I don’t think that there will ever be parity in the military or in kindergarten teachers.  Even in law, women gravitate towards certain fields — family law, child protection, public interest, environmental, alternative dispute resolution.  In fact, most of the public interest (and correspondingly low income) jobs are dominated by women.  Believe me, they are not forced in that direction at all.  Women are still heavily recruited by big law firms and by prestigious opportunities.  Most, however, opt for more non-competitive options.  Most of the litigators I know are men, and I was the rare exception.  A vast majority of the women I talked with would rather be strung up by their toes than become a litigator.  Maybe that same idea of keeping out of competition keeps them out of office–only because they don’t want it.  I don’t know, but it’s my speculation.

    And no, I don’t want to run for office either.

  3. we came awful close in the US to having a female President and/or a female VP.

    Now, I didn’t support Clinton in the primary, but if she had prevailed I would have in the GE, and I certainly am actually glad that Palin lost because I thought she was a walking nightmare, not because of gender, but because of ideas. Yet… yet it is notable that a large number of Dem primary voters, nearly exactly 1/2 where willing to put Ms Clinton forward (and I think if she had won the primary she would likely have won the GE), AND close to half the country also was willing to vote for a female VP in the GE, indeed Palin was a bigger draw to many then McCain. So, even though this year did not see a woman elected to the Prez or VP slot, between the primaries and the GE we had nearly 76.5 million people willing to vote for a woman as president or vice president… This, to me is a generational change, both Dems and Repubs where willing to vote for a woman.

    I am curious to see what the gender breakdown of state houses would be, just focusing on the national body may be skewing the results a little conservatively.

    In my mind there needs to be a few institutional changes that would help things dramatically. Just as safe, easy and effective birth control has opened many doors I somehow think raising the average age (say into the late 20s early 30s) of pregnancy would allow women to be more established in careers and have greater opportunity to foster political aspirations. Better and more responsive child care, increase of paternal child care… In large scale societies the focus of political power is often removed from easy geographical access which necessitates increased time away from families, which means we need better support systems if women are to come anywhere close to parity.  I would hazard a guess (and this is ONLY a guess) that the closer to home the political structure is based the greater female participation in governance is.  

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