I once spent a March 8th in Mexico and was surprised to find the streets filled with parades and vendors selling giant teddy bears in celebration of International Women’s Day. Random people greeted me with a cheerful “Feliz dia de la mujer.”
International Women’s Day isn’t such a big deal here in the US, and if we do recognize the holiday, it’s often seen as an opportunity to acknowledge international struggles for gmeender equality, with an emphasis on achieving basic human rights for women in poor and developing countries. A quick perusal of today’s events in Seattle includes a fundraiser for an international micro-finance nonprofit and a campaign to improve women’s access to healthcare and education globally.
Engaging with global issues of social justice and equality is very important to me—it’s the focus of most of my work–but the last few weeks have set me thinking. From all-male panels at Senate hearings on birth control to Rush Limbaugh’s revolting remarks about Sandra Fluke (a Georgetown law student who testified before Congress in defense of health care coverage for contraception) I’ve decided to keep my critiques closer to home this year.
Americans have a tendency to assume that we lead the world in…well…most things. But especially in terms of gender equality. We’re shocked at sexual harassment in Europe, horrified by brothels in Southeast Asia, and don’t get us started on the way women are treated in the Muslim world.
But how many of us know that our own country ranks shockingly low when it comes to political representation of women?
We hover somewhere between 70th and 90th worldwide for female representation in legislatures (depending how you calculate). Looking at one set of data from the IPU, we’re there behind Cambodia, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan—tied with Turkmenistan for an abysmal ranking of 78th. And while 59 other countries have had female heads of government, we’ve never even had a women nominated by a major party to run for President.
“We have about the same representation as countries that many Americans don’t even know are countries,” says Lindsey Meeks, a colleague of mine at the UW Department of Communication who studies politics, communication and gender. “What is so uniquely bad about America is that we have all of these factors contributing to gender equality but we are so low in representation.”
So why do societies with fewer women in the workforce and significantly less access to education and resources have so many more women in government leadership? The answer may, unfortunately, lead us back to Rush.
“Instead of thinking of the media as a reflection [of society], think of it as an enforcer of social stereotypes” says Meeks who cites studies that prove that newspapers significantly over-reference the gender of political candidates. She rattles off example after example of newscasters that physically critique women candidates as well openly mock and degrade female politicians and fellow journalists.
For a kind of “greatest hits” montage of the disturbing practice, check out this video:
Meeks is not the only one to connect a lack of women in politics to the media. The surprise hit documentary Missrepresentation harshly criticizes the culture of American media, claiming to expose “how American youth are being sold the concept that women and girls’ value lies in their youth, beauty and sexuality.”
In fact it was a viewing of Missrepresentation, which is chock-full of upsetting statistics, that first got me thinking about this issue. When the documentary showed the statistic that we rank 90th world wide for women in politics, I was so surprised I honestly thought it was a typo.
“I think Americans know that we don’t have a lot of representation of women in politics, but then assume that other countries are on par with the United States,” says Meeks who will be celebrating International Women’s Day by tweeting about women’s positive impact on society at: @L_Meeks, “It never crosses their minds.”