Emma Szewczak-Harris




Representation matters; the world over, but especially in US politics. Why? For a start, women make up only 19.4% of the US congress. This places the US, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, 97th in the world for the equal representation of women in parliament – four places behind Saudi ArabiaThis is one of the worst levels of representation in the so-called ‘first world’. For a country that considers itself to be the oldest living participatory democratic system in the world, and to be a world leader in equal rights (to the extent that it will pontificate at length on other countries’ practices)  this is surprisingly disappointing. And where, if at all, is this lack of representation made manifest? In the US’ relative abyss of a gender equality gap and the country’s dismal attempts to breach it. The UN’s Gender Parity Index measures elements of equality in three areas – reproductive health, empowerment, and labour market participation – and the US falls short on all fronts, particularly in political empowerment for women.


Political empowerment and representation go hand in hand, and not just in the context of gender. The correlation becomes starkly apparent when considering other under-represented groups in congress, and each group’s relative political disempowerment. Such groups include people of colour (making up only 17% of congress whereas they represent 38% of the country’s demographic), non-Christians (Christians comprising 92% of congress whereas 83% of the country identifies as such), and LGBT individuals (there are only 7 openly LGBT members of congress). And all of these groups lack certain, standard, civil protections. Examples of modern congress failing to protect them include: the lack of any federal law specifically requiring equal treatment for transgender people; the long running “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy banning military personnel from disclosing their sexual orientation; racial profiling enshrined through a whole manner of legitimate police practices; the zero-sum game played out between national security and individual liberty in the name of anti-terror legislation. However, increasing levels of representation of these groups has meant a shift in the protection of their rights. The inauguration of the first African American president Barack Obama certainly heralded change. Since 2009 the US has seen: ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ repealed; Bush-era torture policies reversed; the elimination of the‘catch-22’ in pay equality laws; the expansion of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act to include sexual orientation, gender, and disability; the signing of the Claims Resolution Act which provided financial reparations for black and Native American farmers cheated out of loans and natural resource royalties by former governments. Furthermore, the number of underrepresented groups has been steadily increasing over this period. While there was already an upward trend in representation before Obama’s presidency, the rate of change has moderately accelerated since his election.


It isn’t surprising, then, that some proponents of gender equality support voting for Hilary Clinton on the strength of her gender alone. Surely this makes sense considering the sheer rate of change that came from and along with the election of an African American president, and considering what representation plainly seems to mean: a lack of representation, and your rights aren’t protected; more representation, and they are. In a constitutional democracy interpretation matters, and the interpreters have the power. What happens when certain groups don’t get a say in the process? Quite evidently, they’re fleeced.


Obama certainly made an impact. But is it reductive to give Obama’s identity, and not his autonomy, credit for this broadening of political empowerment? And is it not an overstatement to attribute all of these improvements to Obama alone? The increasing diversity of congress in recent years (the 2015 congress was the most diverse ever) surely played a part. Yet this increased diversity was also affected by Obama’s election. Actively, he elected two Supreme Court Justices from underrepresented groups. More passively, he witnessed the acceleration of the preexisting upward trend of ethnic minority representation in congress. His election, then, had a multi-dimensional effect on congressional representation. While it is nigh on impossible to distinguish between the causes and the effects of representation and empowerment, at least we can be sure of their relation.


In February 2016, Madeleine Albright – speaking at a Democrat rally in New Hampshire – called upon women to show solidarity with Clinton and to vote for her. Using her ‘trademark’ phrase to emphasise the point, she said, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other”.  Albright’s comment caused a furore. She later backtracked, claiming that she did not mean to imply that women should vote for a certain candidate based on their gender alone. But it was too late, and the question was out there. Is it wrong for women – for feminists especially – not to vote for a female candidate?


For some, it makes about as much sense as voting for a presidential ticket that included Sarah Palin: nil. The direct and regressive effect it would have had on basic women’s rights, given Palin’s and the wider, general, conservative stance on abortion, fertility, sexual health etc., would’ve outweighed any more nebulous, later benefits of increased representation at the executive level. While Clinton cannot be accused of being as directly harmful to women’s rights as Palin, many cite her track record on the subject as less than ideal. It’s harmful to Clinton’s platform as best candidate for gender equality that she ever supported, let alone continues to support, her husband’s Welfare Reform Initiative, reform that disproportionately and negatively affected poorer women. Which brings us to a key contention on the left with Clinton’s credentials on equality – that she has continually sold out working class women, and women of colour, through her broader economic vision. For every positive cause Clinton claims she will fight for (the end of mass incarceration, fighting for affordable childcare) her opponents respond with examples of her doing exactly the opposite (embracing mandatory prison sentences, decreasing federal contribution to welfare initiatives). What good is any arbitrarily chosen female president if they do not have the genuine desire to protect certain rights? Critics of gender biased voting claim that this is not only reductive of the candidate but potentially damaging to the goal of gender parity.


Simply voting for a candidate on the strength of their group identity does not guarantee that they will make decisions that the majority of that group would, or should, make. The identity doesn’t govern, the individual does. Just because Clinton represents a certain identity group does not mean that she holds specific political views. An example of an individual elected to high political office who did not hold the supposedly inherent political values of their group identity is Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Thomas was the court’s second African American Judge and one of the most conservative judges it had ever seen. His predecessor, Thurgood Marshall, was a significant civil rights activist and it was considered a betrayal of Marshall’s values, and of African American rights, that a conservative albeit African American candidate should replace him. Much political maneuvering engineered Thomas’ election. Incumbent president George W Bush knew that only another African American candidate could follow the popular Marshall – a white candidate would not have been approved for the nomination. By nominating Thomas, Bush was able to preserve the racial makeup of the court whilst shifting its ideological balance to the right. Thomas was subsequently voted onto the court by the narrowest margin of approval in a century. Needless to say, Thomas’ conservatism is not representative of African Americans. In the 2012 election, only 16% of African Americans voted Republican (incidentally, this was the highest figure of African American Republicans since 1960: JFK’s winning election). However, this does mean that one of the smallest minority groups – Republican African Americans – is represented on the court. A small victory for proponents of equal representation.


Which brings us to the crux of the matter when considering the validity of biased voting. What is the end of such voting: increased representation, or equal rights? Is equal representation an end in itself or a means to an end? When explaining her comments on why women should vote for Clinton, Albright stated “if heaven were open only to those who agreed on politics, I imagine it would be largely unoccupied.” Is agreeing on politics – on agreeing which policies will empower women – less important than sharing a certain identity?


This is a debate that has raged in political science: what is actually meant by representation? If it is, as theorist Hanna Pitkin defined, to “make present again’’ citizens in the political process, is it to make their voices present, their beliefs present, or them present? Do we want our representatives to merely share the positions of certain groups, or do we want them to constitute an actual voice of that group? In which case, they do not need to worry so much about being positionally representative if they literally are a member of, and representation of, the group.


Whatever representation is, it is true to say that representational bias has been an influential if invisible cornerstone of the US electoral system – if not all electoral systems – from the very off. It is not a coincidence that congress has, up until this point, been overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male. It is no coincidence that almost every elected president was taller than his defeated rival (the relatively squat George W Bush is a modern exception but then no one, not even a giant, can beat electoral fraud). It is also no coincidence that women are the only non-minority group to be underrepresented in congress, that the US is one of the worst countries for gender equality in the ‘first world’ and yet one of the only ones not to have had an elected, female head of state. Of course the group identity of the next president of the US is only a symbol, but symbol – and representation – matter. Clinton’s symbolic identity as woman, combined with her not completely woeful stance on women’s rights, mean that she could be a powerful force for affecting change that is longer lasting than one or two terms in office. Sanders may be able to implement much immediate policy based changed, but he will not be able to turn the greater, psychological tide against putting women in positions of power. Literal representation, and literal voice, is needed.



(But that’s a whole other story.)


Emma Szewczak-Harris completed her MPhil in Gender Studies at the University of Cambridge and is currently Research Fellow at the Dialogue Society, London. Her research interests focus on the relationship between religion, gender and consumer culture, and she will start a PhD at the Royal College of Art later this year.