Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro

The New Wave: Stereotypes, Prejudices And Other Challenges For Women In Politics

May 22, 2018 - 5:00 am
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NEW YORK (WCBS 880) -- With a record number of female candidates, there is talk of this being the year of the woman. But progress has been slow.  

In this week's segment of The New Wave: Women In Politics, Peter Haskell looks at the challenges women have faced in getting elected.

"We live in a world, in a culture where sexism exists," said former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who has seen the challenges firsthand. 

Sometimes the bias is about looks, and other times it's about knowledge.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro
Peter Haskell/WCBS 880

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., remembers testifying about a big defense contractor in her district.

"I finished my testimony and Congressman Lewis from California he said to me, 'Congresswoman DeLauro, can you talk about the M1-A1 tank and the engine without looking at your notes?' and I turned to him and I said, 'Damn straight I can,'" she said.

"What do you make of that?" Haskell asked.

"It was just about women don't deal with the defense industy," DeLauro said.

Jean Sinzdak
Peter Haskell/WCBS 880

She says there's a continuing double standard.

"Women have to work harder still today. A lot of my male colleagues can stand up, and say whatever they want. They can drool on the floor of the House of Representatives and it doesn't make any difference. Women have to know what they are talking about," DeLauro said.

Former New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman
Peter Haskell/WCBS 880

Part of the problem has been the old boys network.

"Women are far less likely to get asked to run for office by party officials, elected officials, influential community leaders," said Jean Sinzdak, deputy director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers.

Former New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman points to a problematic perception.

"Women will always be looked on as primary caregivers -- whether it's for children, spouses, significant others, parents it doesn't matter. And that has engendered this idea that somehow you can't do that and still be effective at your job, which is just simply not true," Whitman said.

Former New Jersey Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno said when she was running for the Monmouth County sheriff's office, she was asked, "How are you going to run a jail and run a law enforcement agency when you have three children?"

"They wouldn't ask a man that question. They would assume a man wouild be able to do it and have children," Guadagno said. "And my answer was: 'The same way you do. You have a family, you have a very supportive spouse, you have help and you raise your kids.'"

Liz Holtzman, a former congresswoman and former Brooklyn district attorney, said prejudices and stereotypes are still standing in the way of women.

"There are stereotypes out there that women can't do certain kinds of jobs, particularly executive jobs. Those stereotypes are very hard to eradicate," Holtzman said. "We made a lot of progress. When I was first elected and took office in 1973, there was no woman on the Supreme Court; there'd been no women of any prominence holding the top cabinet positions; women weren't heads of symphonies or univerisities. We've seen that change."

Although progress has been made, Holtzman said the country still has a long way to go.

"The basic attitude is still too pervasive that women can't do this job and women can do the job and women will do the job," she said. "I think there's a long way to go, and I'm very troubled and a bit disheartened by the lack of progress we've made in terms of changing people's attitudes about the role of women in society."

But Brigid Harrison, who teaches political science at Montclair State University, said she is seeing some improvements.

"Women, compared to say 20 or 30 years ago, have larger professional networks. They have more net worth and so they're better able to fund their campaigns. They're better able to have connections to fund their campaigns," Harrison said.

However, there are still plenty of obstacles. Harrison said one of the greatest challenges is how congressional districts are configured.

"Twenty years ago, it may have been possible to primary an incumbent member or it may have been possible to run in a competitve district and knock off an unpopular incumbent. Today, given the sophisticated way in which mapmakers create our congressional districts -- and that's done on the state level -- in about 90 percent of the seats, of Congress the winner is predetermined simply because of the partisan advantage in that district," Harrison said. "That's an incredible obstacle for women who are not incumbents to overcome."

Not to be ignored is the power of incumbency. House incumbents win 95 percent of the time. If women pick up seats this year, that could help generate momentum going forward.