Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin’s decision to not seek a third term has opened the door for several challengers who want to lead the city of Hartford. As of this writing, four people have declared their candidacy for mayor: Hartford Councilman Nick Lebron, former state senator Eric Coleman, Hartford Land Bank CEO Arunan Arulampalam, and state Senator John Fonfara. The candidates have varied backgrounds and experiences, but there is one thing that they all have in common: they’re all men.
The (current) lack of women candidates continues the lack of elected leadership from women in the city. In 249 years, Hartford has only had two women as mayors – Ann Uccello (1967-71) and Carrie Saxon Perry (1987-93). It’s still early, as the election is a little less than 11 months away. A woman could certainly declare her candidacy before the filing deadline in August. Even if she did though, she would find herself in a field, and a profession, dominated by men.
Of course, Hartford is not alone in its inequitable sharing of political power between men and women. Like its capital city, the state of Connecticut has only had two women as its chief executive, Ella Grasso (1975-80) and M. Jodi Rell (2004-11). Beyond our state, there are only twelve states that have women as governors today. And there’s never been a woman President.
These depressing numbers are partly explained by the fact that women were almost completely barred from political participation for more than half of the nation’s history. Women didn’t gain full suffrage until 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment. Yet the last one hundred years have not closed the gap when it comes to women’s representation at the highest levels of government. Men have had a massive head start in establishing networks, norms, and expectations that favor them in the political sphere, and those advantages have endured into the 21st century. This is despite the fact that women and men each comprise about 50% of the population. In fact, women slightly outnumber men nationally, and also in 40 out of 50 states.
There are concrete steps that can be taken to alleviate this gross disparity. Many countries around the world employ a gender quota system that guarantees women equal representation in elections and government. These quotas take several forms, but the most frequently used are systems that either require a certain number of reserved seats for women (typically used in parliaments), a certain number of women candidates for various elected positions, or voluntary quotas instituted at the political party level.
Quota systems have had great success in creating gender parity in government in some countries. For example, in 2003 Rwanda passed a law that required that 30% of its parliamentary seats be reserved for women. In the years since, Rwanda has blown past that minimum requirement – in 2013, a world record 64% of that nation’s parliament was filled by women. Americans often balk at quota systems (just see the continued furor over race-based affirmative action policies), but nothing will change without dramatic action to correct historical wrongs.
I’m not the first person to acknowledge that women are underrepresented in political leadership. When other people talk about this issue, they often point to studies that show that women are better leaders than men, or that they’re more cooperative or other merit-based arguments. While I appreciate what these people are trying to accomplish, I fear that the “put women in charge because they’re better” line of reasoning runs the risk of setting women up as saviors or superhumans, which is an unfair standard. Women shouldn’t have to prove that they are better to justify being leaders. There have been countless incompetent men who have been given power and authority, and women should have the right to be every bit as good or bad.
In a representative government such as ours, it only makes sense that the government should actually be representative. Local, state, and federal government should look seriously at following the lead of Rwanda and other countries that have created gender-equity quotas. The benefits will be felt from Hartford to the halls of Congress.