It’s not too surprising that “meme” is the first word Google suggests when you begin to type “PTA mom” into the search box—an ubiquitous branding, but an unfortunate one. We need to start granting these power-moms much greater respect and attention, particularly if we ever want to see a woman president elected. No, I’m not exaggerating. PTA momhood is one of the crucial first nodes on the “community leader to elected official” pipeline, a channel which is severely lacking in women.
As of this summer, women represent less than 25 percent of every level of U.S. government (all national, state, and local elected bodies), placing us 100th in the world for women’s political representation. For a country that loves to talk the democracy and equality talk, we aren’t very good at walking the walk—but as Wesleyan students, you probably already knew that. What you may not know is why it matters. Of course, the political gender gap ossifies the historical disempowerment of women and weakens the foundation of our so-called representative democracy, but it goes even further than that. The underrepresentation of women is limiting our policy outcomes and making substantial progress on issues like immigration, healthcare, and climate change nearly impossible.
For example, consider the upset over the Obamacare skinny repeal in July, when two female Republican senators tanked the bill (McCain’s vote dealt the final blow, but it was the long-term resistance of Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins that ensured its demise). And if the Graham-Cassidy plan comes to a vote soon, the same Republican women will again decide the bill’s fate. This comes from numerous studies showing that women, regardless of party, tend to prioritize women’s issues and more readily unite across the aisle. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) echoes this: “Women tend to be less partisan, more collaborative, listen better, find common ground. Every time I’ve had a bill that’s important to me, I’ve had strong Republican women helping me pass it.” Even the few women currently in Congress, such as Murkowski and Collins, are making huge impacts; imagine what it would be like if we reached 50 percent.
We would see women’s health issues at the forefront of healthcare discussion, largely because women are much more likely to sponsor this kind of legislation (see Volden and Wiseman). Women’s health is only the beginning; we would likely see more progressive immigration law, criminal justice reform, and environmental policy. This isn’t just because women legislators at the state and national levels have proven an empirical commitment to these issues, but also because the higher representation of women tends to yield collaboration and bipartisanship. A Quorum study determined that the average woman senator co-sponsored 171.08 bills with a senator from the other party, whereas the average male sponsored just 129.87. This isn’t to say that women elected officials are inherently better than their male counterparts, rather that they tend to employ different styles. Now more than ever, Washington could benefit from diverse perspectives, new tactics, and revitalized policy priorities.
However, none of this is possible if we remain apathetic towards the barriers facing women’s political leadership. During my interview this summer with journalist Amanda Ripley, who investigated the issue for POLITICO, she pointed out that women are much less likely to have ever considered running for office. Furthermore, parties, institutions, and others do a poor job of recruiting women, despite the impressive pool of engaged, qualified candidates at even local levels. Moms who volunteer with organizations like the PTA work diligently and ardently simply because they care about the communities in which they’ll raise their children. We need to capitalize on their abilities and sense of civic duty by ushering them into the pipeline, starting with bodies such as the school board.
“School board is the ultimate boot camp” for preparing women for the tribulations of elected leadership, Ripley informed me. She laughed, admitting it sounded strange, but stressed the hardworking, assiduous nature of these women. Michelle Swers, a political science professor at Georgetown University, also contends that in order to elect a woman president, we need to prime the pipeline at the local level. PTA moms who begin their path on the school board can advance to the city council, state legislature, governorship, Congress, and even the Oval Office. Even if they don’t advance personally, they plant seeds of ambition in other women who take the baton and run for office.
If you care about the future of American policy, don’t write off your local PTA moms as nothing more than meme material. Instead, ask them to run for office. In fact, ask any mom, community organizer, teacher, business owner, fellow student, or woman in your life who exhibits leadership capabilities and strong convictions. Who knows—you might just be convincing the next woman president.
Katie Shewfelt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.