Here’s a shocking statistic: Throughout American history, 1,917 US senators have been men — and just 46 have been women.
Yes, there are caveats to this. Women haven’t been allowed to vote, much less serve in political office, for much of the country’s history. And even once they gained those legal rights, society and culture also had to change to accept women in leadership positions. (We’re just now possibly getting the first woman president — nearly 100 years after the 19th Amendment gave women nationwide, although not necessarily black women until the Voting Rights Act, the right to vote.)
But this still shows one of the many ways the US political system has been skewed to favor men.
A new video by the Atlantic profiling Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) demonstrates some of the many hurdles women face to getting into office — and why those hurdles are bad not just for equality, but basic good governance.
It opens up with an anecdote, told by Klobuchar, that is at once incredibly awkward and incredibly telling:
I remember one of my first months I was on the senators’ elevator. The door opens up, and the male senator says to me, "I’m sorry, this is senators only." And the guy next to me, from my staff, says, "She is a senator." And he looks aghast. And then I looked at him — and of course I knew who he was — and I said, "But who are you?"
As Klobuchar explained, this just shows one of the first big hurdles of a system built almost entirely by men, for men: Male senators get the benefit of "looking" senatorial.
"Male senators get to where they are in different ways," Klobuchar explained. "And they can kind of wow some of their constituents with just looking like a senator. And we never seem to look like a senator, because that’s not how a senator looked in the old textbooks."
She added, "The way a lot of these women have gotten to where they are is because of the accountability route: They actually had to show their constituents they got something done. Someone once said that women candidates — and I don’t agree with all of this — speak softly and carry a big statistic. And I don’t agree with the speak softly part, but certainly they carry big statistics in that they focus on accountability. That makes them better legislators, because they’re more focused on results and getting things done."
This speaks to Klobuchar’s case for gender parity in the legislature: It’s not just about equality, but about diversity in perspectives and governing styles, too. "Having women at the table is incredibly important, not just for the numbers and for representing our country and equality, but also that they’re able to get things done in a unique way," she said. "Based on your own experiences, you can relate more and immediately see the unfairness of a problem that others are experiencing."
She offered a story to show this: "During the health care debate, [Sen.] Debbie Stabenow’s sitting at a table during a somewhat boring negotiation on the Finance Committee. And one of the male senators said, ‘Well, I don’t know why we would need maternity benefits in here. I’ve never used them. Why would they be mandatory?’ And she says, ‘I bet your mother did.’"
This isn’t just theory. The research, Sarah Kliff explained for Vox, backs this up:
As more and more women start to occupy the White House and Congress, we should expect them to govern differently.
Political science research has found this over and over again: Women legislators are more likely to introduce legislation that specifically benefits women. They’re better at bringing funding back to their home districts. And, to put it bluntly, they just get more shit done: A woman legislator, on average, passed twice as many bills as a male legislator in one recent session of Congress.
Women bring a different background to Congress. They face different obstacles to success — and sometimes more obstacles to winning office. That shapes how they govern and what issues they choose to focus their time on.
Women legislators focus more on issues that affect women—such as family leave, violence against women, and women’s health—but they also seem to far more effective at legislating, period.
So not only is the stark disparity in the total number of senators throughout US history—1,917 men versus 46 women—just a travesty for gender equality, it’s probably a tragedy for basic governance.