Is Sarah Palin Deterring Women from Running for Office?

Women make up over 50 percent of the population, but only 17 percent of congress ... and how this can change

This past June 11th marked the 132nd anniversary of the birth of Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to the United States Congress. Rankin, a Republican suffragette from Montana, was first elected to national office in 1916, four years before the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. In the span of four years, the first woman was sent to Congress and the disenfranchisement of women ended. Politically, things were turning around for American women.

Fast-forward to 2012 and women have a strong voice, but not a strong enough presence. Women comprise only around 17 percent of the 112th Congress, including both House and Senate, even though we make up 50.8 percent of the United States population (according to the 2010 census). In a word, American women are underrepresented in the halls of Congress.

In a day and age when women can be anything they aspire to be, including speaker of the house and secretary of state, why do so few of us choose to run for office? Does the toxic political environment deter us or do we simply choose to apply our talents elsewhere? There are reasons aplenty why women are reluctant to run for elective office. Here are a few:

Who wants to be treated like Sarah Palin?
Today’s political environment is toxic in general and gets particularly ugly when a woman runs for higher office. Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin were both subjected to vile and misogynistic attacks in 2008 and things were certainly no better for Michele Bachmann when she ran for president earlier in the 2012 election cycle. Who can blame women for not wanting to put themselves and their families through this? But the answer almost certainly lies in MORE women running, not fewer.

Women react more negatively to the realties of modern campaigns
In short, we’re sick of politics being stuck on stupid. Yes, mean things will be said in the course of a political campaign, that’s just how it is when trying to define yourself and your opponent to voters. Politics will never be nice, so we need to toughen our skin, sharpen our nails, and hit the campaign trail.

Historically, women have not been encouraged to run for office
While the two political parties may be slow in recruiting female candidates, the good news is that the grassroots are not. Conservative groups like Smart Girl Politics Action (yes, that’s me tooting my own horn) provide training for women who are considering a run for office, and, perhaps more importantly, serve as cheerleaders for those women who do run. On the left, She Should Run seeks to increase female participation in the electoral process by offering support to progressive women looking to seek office.

Family obligations
Whether by choice or by circumstance, women are the glue that holds their families together. Can a woman with children run for office? Absolutely. Will it be easy? Heck no. Every woman’s situation is different, however, and some families may be more capable than others of weathering a campaign and life in office. Ben Domenech of the Heartland Institute may have a solution to this conundrum: “Smart Moms” need to run. Smart moms are women whose children have grown or whose life circumstances make it easier for them to take on the rigors of a campaign. As Ben puts it, these women are a bit more “seasoned” and likely to not let gender biases, whether perceived or real, deter them from running.

Have we come a long way? Maybe. But we have a ways to go before a more natural political balance is struck. Just as Jeannette Rankin did in 1916, the women of today need to recognize the value we bring to the political process.

WATCH: Ten Most Influential Women in Politics

Teri Christoph is the co-founder of Smart Girl Politics, a non-profit organization for conservative women, and co-chair of She-PAC, a hybrid PAC supporting conservative women candidates. Follow her on Twitter: @TeriChristoph.

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