Press Clippings & Releases

Press Clipping: ASWC must do more to increase female political participation

ASWC must do more to increase female political participation

By Jeanne Morefield
May 5, 2011

As reporters Kelsey Kennedy and Maren Schiffer made clear in their excellent April 7 article, ASWC has a serious gender problem. On a campus where women constitute 58 percent of the student body, 66 percent of the Executive Council representatives are men. In my 10 years at Whitman College, there has been precisely one woman ASWC president. And, according to the American Student Government Association, Whitman is not alone in this regard. Among U.S. News & World Report's top 50 colleges, men account for more than two-thirds of student presidents despite that fact that nearly 60 percent of college students in the U.S. today are women.

What explains this gap if women are as suited for public office by nature as men and there are no official policies that prevent their participation? Obviously, there is no hidden control room in Reid in which sexist men sit, smoking cigars, plotting ways to keep ASWC male. Rather, as the April 7 article suggests, there are informal networks at work here which, through friendships and affiliations, end up reproducing gendered assumptions about leadership that discourage women from running for office.

Why is this a problem? A theory of democracy that privileges the representation of interests alone would suggest that women aren't necessarily better representatives of women's interests than men (e.g. Rep. Cathy McMorris-Roger's recent vote against Planned Parenthood). But a more civic Republican approach (which also has long-standing roots in the American tradition) argues that all citizens have a right and a duty to engage in formal democratic practices, that we gain as human beings when we do so, and that participation in politics is good in and of itself. Informal mechanisms that steer women away from campus politics deny them the experience of that good –– democracy in action –– at Whitman.

On a practical level, Whitman women are also informally excluded from the chance to get hands-on experience with political leadership and policy-making, and this has long-term, national implications. Political scientists interested in electoral gender disparity have found that, in contrast to men, women are far more likely to run for public office in this country if they have previously been involved with student government. In other words, there is a real connection, for women, between the experience of political leadership on campus and the choice to pursue political leadership on a state and national level.

This has major implications for anyone interested in addressing the basic gender inequality at the heart of American politics. Women hold a mere 16.4 percent of the 535 seats in the 112th United States Congress, which represents a decline from the already paltry 18 percent that had held steady for the last three decades. The U.S. is ranked 83rd of 189 nations worldwide for total number of women in government.

If we believe that participating in democratic politics is good in and of itself, then clearly, when over 50 percent of a nation's population is denied access to public service through informal mechanisms of exclusion, that democracy has a major problem. Whitman has a fantastic opportunity to make a difference in this regard. Simply, when you increase the number of women in campus politics, you directly increase the chances that they will someday run for office.

Making these changes will not be easy precisely because the mechanisms of exclusion are not formal. ASWC and the Whitman student community are going to have to do some serious thinking about how to address the informal channeling of women students away from campus politics. This no doubt will involve extensive mentoring, information campaigns and outreach to women's groups, perhaps even some form of affirmative action. It will definitely require creative, style="font-weight:bold" thinking.

It has been my privilege over the last 10 years to teach and know such fabulous, smart, service-oriented students. I exhort you all to embrace this challenge and make American democracy better by bringing real gender parity to ASWC. There are not many such clear-cut opportunities for an entire campus to truly be the change they want to see.