Democracy Decoded: Season 2, Bonus Episode 1 Transcript

Diverse Women in Politics

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Simone Leeper: Why does American Democracy look the way it does today and how can we make it more responsive to the people it was formed to serve? I’m Simone Leeper and this is Democracy Decoded - a podcast where we examine our government and discuss innovative ideas that could lead to a stronger, more transparent, accountable and inclusive democracy.  

We wrapped up the final episode of our last season on voting rights back in December. But while you’re waiting for season three to come out this fall, we wanted to share some bonus content with you from our friends at Future Hindsight, an award-winning podcast that takes big ideas about civic life and democracy and turns them into action items for all of us.  

Host Mila Atmos is passionate about unlocking the power of everyday citizens, and each week you can join her on the show as she zeroes in on what you can do to get engaged and stay engaged.  

At CLC, we believe it’s important for our elected officials to truly represent their constituents. We should have elected bodies that reflect the diversity of the populations they serve. However, even though women make up half the electorate, they still only make up 28% of our federal legislators, and women of color make up a much smaller percentage.   

In this episode, Mila Atmos interviews Kelly Dittmar, the Director of Research at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University about why diversity among women serving in public office strengthens our democracy, and how we can support more women to run in and win elections.  

Let’s listen in to the conversation... 

Kelly Dittmar: [00:00:05] Political institutions in the United States and globally have really been shaped by masculinity and men, if we look at the gender dynamics of them. And so what happens when we start to disrupt that dominance of masculinity through the ways that candidates, voters, and elected officials behave, the messages they put forth, the things they prioritize? And all of these things I talk about as disruptive in a positive way because they expand the pool of people who will both see these institutions as accessible to them, as representative of them, and ultimately as open to them in terms of being an elected office holder serving in this position so that our representation in political institutions is better and more diverse. 

Mila Atmos: [00:01:01] Welcome to Future Hindsight a Civic Engagement podcast. I'm your host, Mila Atmos. Our guest is Kelly Dittmar, the director of research and scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics. I wanted to know how women govern differently than men and whether that difference in governing is good for our democracy. We discuss the diversity of experiences and political viewpoints among women in elected office and explain why we need more of them serving in public office. We start our conversation with what the research has revealed about the impact of gender diversity in public policy and in politics. 

Kelly Dittmar: [00:01:44] I've spent most of my research career at the Center for American Women and Politics looking at how women get into office and how gender shapes the navigation of a campaign trail and campaign processes, and then why it matters and what happens when women are in office. How do women change the dynamics among officeholders within political institutions? And then taking those findings to make the case for more women in elected office and the importance of having women both run for office in greater numbers and ultimately win and serve in greater numbers. When we talk about political institutions, it's really looking at a systems level. So political institutions in the United States and globally have really been shaped by masculinity and men. What happens when we start to disrupt that dominance of masculinity through the ways that candidates, voters, and elected officials behave, the messages they put forth, the things they prioritize? And all of these things I talk about as disruptive in a positive way because they expand the pool of people who will both see these institutions as accessible to them, as representative of them, and ultimately as open to them in terms of being an elected office holder serving in this position so that our representation in political institutions is better and more diverse. 

Mila Atmos: [00:03:25] So can you talk a little bit about what you would consider the number one reason we should have more women in office? 

Kelly Dittmar: [00:03:31] I think if we pull back a little bit and just think about how we define representativeness, right, in a representative democracy, oftentimes the discussion of identities like race or gender get discounted as demographic identities. In other words, we're just counting beans. If we want 50 percent women in office, that that somehow doesn't translate into substantive differences in terms of how policy is being made. But what we know from every other statistic and dynamic and of course, those of us who are living these lives, we know that women have different lived experiences and that among women, of course, there is a great diversity of those differences and lived experiences. Whether they be challenges, opportunities, etc, they shape a perspective and a lens on the world that is missing in policy debates and political debates. So one thing that's important to remember is that electing women to office or having more women run doesn't give us one policy outcome. But having more women hopefully ensures that we get a greater diversity among women that brings a more representative group of perspectives and lived experiences to bodies that are meant to serve a large population of whom many groups and folks with distinct backgrounds have not been represented in those conversations. And now, as we're moving forward and seeing a gain in women's representation, we need to have these complex and nuanced discussions about the diversity among women. One goal, in my opinion, is to have just this greater diversity of opinion and background and experience among women as we do of men. And it will yield better decision making because simply you have a variety of perspectives, again, better representative of the constituencies that they're meant to serve. 

Mila Atmos: [00:05:38] Well, since you speak about representation, it was really interesting to find that you argue women think of themselves differently about how they represent their constituents and who they represent. How are they different in the way that we normally think about politicians and representatives? 

Kelly Dittmar: [00:05:55] Yeah, there are two things. One first is to think about the motivation and experience women have just in getting to office, the distinct challenges they have, the hurdles that are presented to them on the campaign trail, the different ways in which they might be evaluated by voters and that shapes their path to office. So one of the differences we found among the women in both a study we did on women state legislators in 2008, as well as in our study of women in Congress, was that they were motivated by what we talk about as achievement over ego. "I'm here to get things done. I worked too hard to get here in order to come here and be in a gridlocked Congress," for example. And so you see women being slightly more willing to work across party lines. Obviously, in the current dynamics, that's hard even for women, but that is one difference. Secondarily, when they get to office, one of the most common things they talked about when we asked about who do you represent, they would say, you know, "I want to be a voice for the voiceless," or "I want to bring in voices that have been marginalized from congressional policy debates. And I think part of that comes from their own sense and experience, again, of marginalization. They are accustomed to being in a group, in this case of women or women of color specifically, that has been marginalized from formal policymaking or decision making. And so they see the value and they understand quite keenly the importance of bringing in other voices that have been similarly marginalized, maybe the disabled community or communities of color or whatever it may be that they see the value and think about that as part of their representative responsibility. 

Mila Atmos: [00:07:56] So what are the common strategies that they employ in order to make governance successful in their own terms, meaning the things that they want to achieve? 

Kelly Dittmar: [00:08:06] There's really been a debate about whether or not when we have more women in office, these institutions will function better, particularly be less partisan. And I think it is an ongoing debate because, again, not all women are the same. But if they do come motivated with these policy motivations in mind, then we hope and we see some evidence that then they are going to be able to work together to get those things done. A recent example is you look at Kirsten Gillibrand, who's been working on this issue of sexual assault in the military for I think about a decade. And she has worked along the way with various women on the Armed Services Committee, many of whom disagreed on the specific ways in which we would address this problem. But they all saw the importance of putting greater attention on an issue that really before there was a critical mass of women on the Armed Services Committee, really hadn't been investigated in significant ways. And she got the support of Senator Joni Ernst, the Republican with whom she disagrees on so many other things. But they are both motivated to move forward and make policy change in this area. One other thing we find across levels of office is because women continue to be underrepresented. It means that within these institutions, they can find each other, have a women's caucus, you know, celebrate women who maybe are having children while in office and they can bond in some cases over those shared experiences that are rooted in or at least tied to their gender. And sometimes that helps to grease the wheels when it comes to who they're going to reach out to, to try to make some movement on a particular policy or create some sort of advocacy campaign for something they want to see move forward in the legislature. 

Mila Atmos: [00:10:10] Well, I think that's the best endorsement yet, is that to elect more women means to get more stuff done in Congress. So, you mentioned this earlier, you talked about party affiliation and that right now in this polarized climate, it is much harder to reach across the aisle. But so how does party affiliation in this day and age hinder this kind of bipartisanship that we, I don't know if you desire it, but it seems like we should? 

Kelly Dittmar: [00:10:46] Yeah, it's really important to not assume that more women certainly equals more bipartisanship, especially at this moment. We're seeing both greater polarization, if you will, among the women who are being elected to Congress. So in the last cycle, we saw some very, very conservative women be elected. In 2018, we saw some especially progressive women get elected. They're starting from ideological points that are much further apart. That makes it harder to come together often, even if you have some of those shared bonds or experiences as women. Right? That's only one avenue potentially to bringing folks together, but it certainly doesn't guarantee it. A good example in Congress is the early 1990s and the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues was really integral at that time in coming together on certain issues and really make some policy change. So one of the most noted in history is they pushed the NIH, the National Institutes of Health, to be sure that they included specific testing and trials for women. And it was amazing at that point in the early 1990s that that wasn't already being done. But it took women coming together across party lines in Congress to really advocate for that once they realized that this was happening, that there was this gap that was both dangerous to women's health and also something that had been really overlooked for so long. Speed ahead to 2021, the Congressional Women's Caucus is not very active. Instead, the Democratic women created their own caucus within the last few years and have been much more active in a partisan way. And so this is all to say that you see the ripple effects of that hyper-partisanship. And I think that's not just bad for women and among women. I think that's certainly dangerous for everybody and across gender. 

Mila Atmos: [00:12:52] For sure, yeah. I have a question now about how gender interacts with race and ethnicity, because, as you said, of course, women are not a monolith. Not all women are going to vote the same way, just like not all men are going to vote the same way. And it's such a misconception that just because you elect a woman that she's going to be singularly focused on something that only concerns women. But so, in what way does gender interact with race and ethnicity, especially among women who are serving in Congress? 

Kelly Dittmar: [00:13:24] Certainly we have to understand how gender interacts with other axes of identity. So race and ethnicity really prominent among them, especially within political institutions that are also highly raced. So we talk about gendered institutions, but they're certainly raced institutions, too, that have been dominated by whiteness. It's not until the 1960s that the first woman of color is elected to Congress in the US House. It's not until the 1980s that we have the first Latina woman, for example, and of course in 2018 we elected the first Native American women, the first Muslim women, even just in 2020, the first Korean American women to serve in Congress. And then when it comes to the effects of having that representation, we have to think again about how lived experiences are different for those women. One example recently is Ayanna Pressley, who is the first black woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts. Since her election in 2018, she's brought forth many of the issues she was dealing with on the Boston City Council. That was about uplifting and empowering Black girls, looking at Black girls’ treatment and education, most recently looking at Black women's health vis a vis the covid crisis. And she's doing that not only because this is an area of interest and importance to her constituency, but it also is coming from that personal understanding and experience and prioritization as herself a Black woman. 

Kelly Dittmar: [00:15:03] And we have to think about the ways in which the racial and ethnic diversity of women's voices, again, brings different perspectives, priorities, expertise to the table that is going to better serve our constituencies as a whole. And one last thing to say there, of course, is that the US Senate has been a space that has been especially void of racial and ethnic diversity overall and specifically among women. Only five women of color have ever served in the US Senate. And with Kamala Harris’s ascendancy to the vice presidency, which of course we all celebrate, it also meant that we went back to having no Black women serving in the 100 member Senate. So we have to think about the continued gaps in terms of representation, what that means for the conversations and debates that are being had among the women who are elected in 2020, some of whom actually used racial tropes and race-baiting in order to win their office. So it's not to say that women universally navigate race and racism in the same way. 

Mila Atmos: [00:16:19] Yeah, that's right, I think this is a deep misconception, that women don't suffer from racism, you know, just because they're women as opposed to men. That's a blanket statement, but it's the kind of thing of like, "no, no, but we all grew up in the same soup." So it affects all of us more or less equally. 

Kelly Dittmar: [00:16:39] Well, don't suffer from it and don't perpetuate it. You know, one of the things that certainly surprised some people, when white women voted at a higher rate for Donald Trump in his first election in 2016, there was a lot of collective "Wow. I didn't realize, like, why would women vote for him if he's a misogynist and why would they support his politics?" And it is a misconception that, first of all, that there's any universal set of quote-unquote "women's interests," when we know that, again, those interests and even how we define women's interests are going to be informed by these layers of identity, whether it be class or race. And so we saw white women, as they've done throughout history, align more with the privilege that their race brings to them, their family members, the men in their lives as well than they did with any sort of solidarity around gender or feminism, if you will. It wasn't unique to 2016, but I think we had a more public conversation about that that continued through the 2020 election to recognize that race is very much intertwined with women's political behavior and how they perceive power, the balance of power in our political system in ways that can sometimes perpetuate racism and of course, in other places it can help to to challenge it. But we've seen both. 

Mila Atmos: [00:18:15] Indeed. So nonetheless, we should have more women in office. What is the Center for American Women and Politics doing in order to expand participation? 

Kelly Dittmar: [00:18:27] So the Center for American Women in Politics has been around for almost 50 years and it was born and founded to really concentrate on the underrepresentation of women, the sort of political disempowerment that women had faced, and to try to jumpstart and identify solutions for how we can expand women's political power. Women already outvote men, and they've been outnumbering and outvoting men since the 1980 election. So there, women have already increased their power as voters. But how do we then leverage that power? Because women are voting at higher rates for Democrats, pushing the party to say, "look, we women are your reliable constituency and so you have to answer for us." So part of our work, which is gathering and analyzing a lot of the data, is to make that political case. When it comes to office holders, we've brought together women elected officials. That in and of itself can be empowering. We also do a campaign training program called Ready to Run that really gives women the tools to either explore candidacy, and then they typically have a second track for women who are already in the fray, and they really need the nuts and bolts, tools, as well as feedback specifically on how as women, they might confront different again, barriers, hurdles, challenges or have distinct opportunities they should leverage as candidates. And then we launched a program with the support of the Obama administration called Teach a Girl to Lead, and that was to make women's political leadership visible to the next generation and making sure that the next generation of kids, girls and boys, see women in public leadership as normal instead of something that's exceptional. 

Mila Atmos: [00:20:30] Wow, that's a lot of work that you do. So in all of this work, what is to you, personally, most exciting? 

Kelly Dittmar: [00:20:38] I think that the work that is both exciting and impactful is really looking at the next generation of our leaders, whether they be women, men, non-binary folks, making them see politics in a different light and redefining what we value both in our candidates and elected officials, so that those credentials, the things that we think are so important, are not tied to stereotypes and expectations of traditional masculinity and men. Like toughness, national security experience, defense experience, that these things are what we really, really want in our leaders. Instead, thinking more broadly about traits like compassion or cooperativeness, right? Things that are, and have been, traditionally more likely to be associated with women or femininity. If we can disrupt those gender power dynamics among a next generation of leaders, I think that we disrupt them then in the institutions writ large and we again yield better and more diverse institutions. That's not to say we shouldn't care about national security and toughness, but that can be paired with other credentials that we think are important to have in our political leaders and really challenging existing norms and rules in ways that can create friendlier institutions to the next generation of women and a more diverse generation of women. Those are really exciting to me because that's the long-term change that we want to see. 

Mila Atmos: [00:22:21] As an everyday citizen, what are two things that I could do to advance more women in politics, to really change the culture and the expectations, you know, play the long game? What could I be doing? 

Kelly Dittmar: [00:22:33] Yeah, so I think maybe a shorter term approach that has long term implications is certainly supporting women who are running for office. So we say “just go ask a woman in your life to run.” Sure. Do that, but then support them all the way through. If they decide to run, make sure you're there to volunteer. Maybe you have the financial capacity to support them in that way. Whatever it may be, help them get from making that decision to run all the way to winning on Election Day. So don't just give at the ends and don't just ask at the beginning. And then I think on the more cultural side of things, try to think differently about our expectations of political leadership, legislative leadership, and the ways in which we evaluate candidates and office holders because we've lived in a society where it's still rare, unfortunately, to see women at the highest levels of leadership. And so we have to check our own biases in the standards to which we hold these candidates and elected officials and question whether or not there are times we are holding women to different standards. For the long-term institutional change, it takes some introspection and some talking more openly about the gendered terrain, the racialized terrain, the sort of intersectional terrain that these candidates face and the ways in which we perpetuate it instead of helping in that disruption. 

Mila Atmos: [00:24:08] You mentioned this already a few times now, that the hardest part about women running for office is their campaign, basically winning election the first time around. So what are the things that you've seen are consistently successful for women who are running in order to gain that office? 

Kelly Dittmar: [00:24:26] You know, I think this is why it's hard to do this work, is because campaigns are really dynamic, meaning every election cycle is going to be a little bit different. In other words, if a woman runs in California versus Pennsylvania, they're going to face a different set of challenges, a different type of voter, and even differently gendered or racialized cultures. So it is hard to say "these are the three things that are most effective." The things that affect women often pretty consistently across these spaces are things like scrutiny over their qualifications or credentials. Whether they are competent enough, they are qualified enough, whether or not their credentials prepare them best to hold the office for which they're running. And so what that means in terms of strategy is you often see women double down on those qualifications. Right? Just reaffirming to voters that "these are all of the things that I've done, all of the achievements that have got me this far." And it's not a foolproof strategy, but it is something that often is largely successful, at least in challenging any of those biases or perceptions that women aren't up for the job. 

Kelly Dittmar: [00:25:42] I think in a more sort of progressive way, one of the other things is Democratic women, especially in recent elections, have really started to leverage their gender, their racial and intersectional identities and experiences as assets to office holding instead of seeing them as hurdles they have to overcome. They're saying, "no, wait a second, there is something to me being a woman that is advantageous, that is a value added to my candidacy and will ultimately to be to my elected office holding." And it goes back to this idea and understanding that being a woman brings with it experiences and perspectives that should be just as important to policymaking as the things we value. For example, if you're a veteran or you're a banker or whatever that may be, that it brings a distinct expertise that is going to inform policy. And so, I'm heartened to see, and I think it's important to see more women of color, more women with various diverse backgrounds really leverage those experiences and identities as advantageous and important to all of what they bring to elected office holding. 

Mila Atmos: [00:27:00] I like it. So here's my last question. Looking into the future, what makes you hopeful? 

Kelly Dittmar: [00:27:08] Certainly over the last two election cycles, we've seen important gains for women, not only in their office holding, the result of the election, but also that women have increased their presence in the candidate pool. So I am hopeful that in 2018 and in 2020, we did see increases and continued increases in the number of women who were just willing to throw their hat in the ring. And then ultimately also the continued success of women. And certainly Kamala Harris' success I think will have ripple effects to normalizing women's presence in presidential leadership as well. I have more guarded or cautious hope about changing the actual sort of gender and racial dynamics of these institutions, whether on the campaign trail or among officeholders. But I do again think we see signs where we see not only the women candidates and office holders themselves, but also media paying greater attention to the ways in which gender bias or intersectional biases have been perpetuated in politics and really calling them out in ways that I hope makes voters and constituents more thoughtful about how they evaluate candidates and officeholders. And lastly, I think we're seeing some more men be a part of these conversations. The burden to disrupting our institutions and to not only include more women as candidates and office holders, but disrupting these gendered patterns in racialized patterns of behavior, has to be on the folks who've been in these institutions and have been privileged within them. And so that's largely white men. They have to come to the table and be calling out the same inequities and calling for greater equity in order for us to see sustained and continued progress. We have plenty of men in power who could do more to help make these institutions friendlier and be supportive of the full inclusion of women, not just, again, their entrance into these institutions, but their empowerment within them. 

Mila Atmos: [00:29:24] Hear, hear. I hope that we will have more men who will call for more women in office. But from my personal experience, I think we're a long way away from there. 

Kelly Dittmar: [00:29:33] Yeah, that is the cautious optimism. I think that you see some examples. With Joe Biden, one of the things that I'm always watching with him is like, how is he bringing Vice President Harris to the table? What are the ways in which he is showing that through example of empowering in this case, the most powerful woman we have in American politics? And early on, it's something he did that was rather small, but I think important, was the day that he announced her as his running mate. He said very explicitly, "we have to have her back because she's going to face this level of scrutiny." And he didn't say it explicitly, but racism and sexism, that is different than, for example, what he would face. And I think if he and others can do better at naming that and calling it out instead of trying to make it invisible. Often in politics, we try to neutralize things, right? Or strategists do. They don't want to talk about gender, they just want to neutralize it. Well, that's not a reality. I don't think there is such a thing as gender or race neutrality. And so how do we actually grapple with it and speak about it in ways that are quite cognizant of the challenges as well as the opportunities, and also work in ways that try to change those dynamics in ways that are positive and empowering for particularly those groups that have been marginalized or excluded from these spaces for so long. 

Mila Atmos: [00:31:07] Yeah, that's that's very well put. I think that's exactly right. We have to name it and speak about it out loud, otherwise we're never going to get there. Well, thank you very much for all the work that you're doing in advancing more women in these spaces in higher office, making policy decisions for all of us. Thank you for being on Future Hindsight. 

Kelly Dittmar: [00:31:29] Well, thank you again for having me. This was fun. 

Mila Atmos: [00:31:32] To me, it's so satisfying to have data confirm that women are an asset to our democracy. Their lived experiences, expertise, and motivation all expand the perspectives of decision makers. As a woman, I am, however, worried that our society’s deeply ingrained biases will continue to prevent more women to run for office and to win elections. We all have a responsibility for supporting women to attain positions of public service. And that's especially true if you’re a white man. We need to remember that the more we champion women candidates, the more likely we will be able to elect qualified and visionary leaders. 

Mila Atmos: [00:33:05] Until next time, stay engaged. I'm Mila Atmos. 

Simone Leeper: That was such a great discussion about a really important topic. It’s been exciting to see the strides we’ve made in this area in recent years, but we still have a long way to go and it’s important to continue these kinds of conversations so that we don’t lose sight of that. 

Special thanks to Mila Atmos and all the folks at Future Hindsight for providing us with such a great episode of their show. Join them every Thursday as they talk to bold activists who are making a real impact. Their stellar guests are public servants, nonprofit leaders, community organizers, journalists and civic innovators who help us understand ALL the issues. Tune in to Future Hindsight at or wherever you get your podcasts.   

We’ll also include a link in the show notes along with a full transcript of the show. This episode of Democracy Decoded was produced and written by Casey Atkins, mixed by Kojin Tashiro, and narrated by me, Simone Leeper.  

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