Female Trailblazers in Politics Reflect on Barriers Broken, Challenges Remaining

March 25, 2021
In The News

Despite a recent surge in the elections of female politicians nationwide, social barriers that prevent women from becoming involved with politics remain pervasive, panelists said at a March 22 event featuring prominent women in government.


The Zoom event, titled “First, But Not The Last,” was co-hosted by the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service and the Women’s and Gender Studies Program in honor of Women’s History Month. The event celebrated the historical milestones recently achieved by women in politics, including the inauguration of Vice President Kamala Harris, who is the first female, Black and South-Asian individual to hold the office. The event was moderated by Donna Brazile, the first Black woman to run a major presidential campaign and an adjunct assistant professor in the WGST Program.


The event featured women who each had achieved historic firsts in their careers: Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.), the first LGBTQ Native American elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, former Gov. Susana Martinez (R-N.M.), the first Latinx female governor in the United States, former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.), the first Black woman elected to the senate, Del. Kathy Tran (D-Va.), the first Vietnamese American elected to office in Virginia, and former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R-N.J.), the first female governor of New Jersey. The panelists spoke about their advice for future female leaders and their experiences shattering glass ceilings, a metaphor for the idea that a woman can see an elite position but is unable to reach it because of societal barriers.


The historical significance of these elections continues to be resonant and powerful, according to Davids.


“I feel like expectations about who runs for office and who gets elected and who gets appointed now have been getting reset time and time again,” Davids said at the event. “I feel very fortunate to have been part of that in the 2018 cycle and to watch it continue to happen over and over.”


While women comprise 51% of the U.S. population, they continue to be underrepresented at all levels of government, especially women of color, Republican women, young women and low-income women. At the federal level, women make up only 24% of the Senate and 27% of the House of Representatives in 2021, and there has yet to be a female president.


Despite the numerous obstacles women entering the political field face, a record number of women ran for office during the 2018 midterm elections and won, from Congress to governorships to state legislatures alike, following former President Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election victory over Hillary Clinton, the first female major-party presidential nominee.


It is important for women to seize any opportunity that comes their way, according to Tran, who was spurred to run for office after the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election left her worried for her children’s future.


“Don’t wait for anyone to ask you, because you might not get asked,” Tran said. “I wasn’t asked to run, many of us weren’t asked to run, so if you’re even just thinking about it a little bit, the answer is yes.”


Progress towards increased female representation in politics comes from a long legacy of women who have challenged the status quo and run for office, according to Whitman.


“I wasn’t going to change who I was, so the woman part for me it just was what it was,” Whitman said. “It was challenging because there were lots of people who said, ‘I’ll never vote for a woman because she’s a woman.’”


The panelists also stressed the importance of having women’s voices represented in policy and politics. Decision-making has been left solely to men for far too long, and electing more women to government and leadership positions is the only way to make real change, according to Davids.


“Unfortunately, we’ve had kind of a default set of experiences creating policy for a really long time,” Davids said. “Now we have this opportunity with so many new voices and diverse lived experiences in these decision-making positions.”


Braun shared an anecdote about a time when a security guard did not want to let her into the U.S. Capitol, not expecting a Black woman to enter the building as a senator. While such incidents can be humiliating, they only reinforce the importance of representation to refute stereotypes about women in leadership, according to Braun.


“You just have to show up and do your job, that’s number one,” Braun said. “It will make space for others, whether you think so or not.”


While women have made huge strides in terms of representation in politics, there is still progress to be made until societal barriers are torn down enough the term glass ceiling will no longer be needed, according to Braun.


“Culture leads and politics follows,” Braun said. “When you think about it, the fact is that the culture has evolved, so we should really celebrate how far we’ve come.”