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Breaking the Political Glass Ceiling: Women and Congressional Elections

ISBN: 0415950880

By Barbara Palmer and Dennis Simon

Review by: Michelle Humphrey


In 2006, women hold 15% of the seats in the US Congress. Why is this percentage such a low number, and why is the rate of electing women to Congress so slow? Barbara Palmer, a professor at American University, and Dennis Simon, a professor at Southern Methodist University, answer this question with a scholarly yet readable analysis of Congresswomen, from how they got there, to how they stayed there, to how they advanced from the House of Representatives to the Senate. The authors ultimately use calculations of past trends to create a blueprint for the future. Their research amounts to a highly original strategy for revving up gender equity in the legislative branch.

Is there a defining factor to explain the scarcity of women in Congress? Yes the power of incumbency. Women face difficulty in winning elections not because of their sex but because of incumbency, an infrastructure dominated by male politicians. In some ways, however, gender is a variable. There are overt differences between districts that elect women and those electing only men. Women have better odds of success in prosperous, diverse, and urbanized districts. The concept of women-friendliness reveals the complexity of the glass ceiling: its not only a matter of incumbency but also about the personality of districts and how responsive they are to women candidates.

While the book concentrates on interpreting statistical trends, the authors rarely lose sight of individual players. Historical profiles include Clare Boothe Luce (R-CT) who started her political career in the 1930s after working as the managing editor of Vanity Fair; Coya Knutson (D-MN), a politician undermined by her own party in the 1950s when she refused to endorsed their presidential candidate; and Carol Mosely Brown (D-IL), the first female African American in the Senate, who ran a presidential campaign in 2004.

Such biographical sketches are brief, but collectively they create a compelling Big Picture that examines cultural attitudes toward women. In spite of the gains of the feminist movement, for instance, studies show hostility in the workplace still exists towards women with children, especially in politics, law, and business. The media, too, continues to spin limiting images of women politicians. Since the campaign coverage of Jeannette Rankin, the first woman to serve in Congress in 1916, female candidates have been a soft news focus, in which their clothes, hair, and family relationships receive greater attention than their political views and experience. And the higher the office a candidate runs for, the more likely the press will emphasize gender stereotypes.

Palmer and Simon conclude that changing such attitudes, while necessary, would be an insufficient catalyst for women's integration into Congress. More pertinent is the need for women to identify the glass ceiling and isolate its cracks only then can we accelerate the seemingly stone-age trek to The House.


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