Concrete Ceilings: The 21st Century Status of Women Politicians in North America

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

The 20th century was a golden age for enfranchising women in many countries around the globe. Between 1900 and 1920, women in about 20 countries joined their New Zealand sisters, who won their right to vote in 1893; these included Canada, but with exceptions (First Nation women were excluded until 1960). In 1920, women in the United States were enfranchised, slowly followed over the decades by other countries around the world. In Mexico, although women were allowed to vote in some state elections, it wasn’t until 1953 that women were allowed to vote in federal elections. By 1999 all countries except three Muslim nations had granted the right to vote to women; the last country that recognized the partial right of women to vote was Saudi Arabia, where in 2011 women were allowed to vote in municipal elections; it is the only country in the world where some people are still ineligible to vote solely on the basis of gender. The right to vote and the right to stand for office were initiated simultaneously in almost all countries; but in Canada, for example, women were not eligible to run for office until 2 years after the first year when women could vote.

It’s been more than a century since women in Canada and U.S. were enfranchised, and almost 70 years in Mexico. One might think that given this long stretch of time, and the many movements for women’s rights around the world, the third decade of the twenty-first century should see women having equal representation in all branches of Federal government and holding major executive positions at the state/provincial levels. But reality is short of that ideal.

The progress of North American women in being elected to the legislative branch of government has been mixed. As of 2021, only 27% of the members of the U.S. Congress are women; 120 women out of 439 representatives in the House and 24 of 100 members of the Senate. While this is a 50% increase in women in the U.S. Congress over 10 years ago, it is far from equal representation. Canadian women are doing slightly better in elective legislative positions: as of the 2020 elections, 100 women out of 338 members of Parliament were serving in the House of Commons; Canadian Senate seats, which are appointed rather than elected, have a far more equitable gender distribution, with 48 women out of 100 members.

In Mexico, women have actually reached an equitable representation in Congress. Due to systemic changes and a mandate that political parties achieve gender-parity in candidates for Congress, women were elected to 49% of the lower house and 51% of the Senate in the 2018 elections. This ranked Mexico in fourth place for women’s representation in countries around the world.

Women still are under-represented in the judicial branches of federal government in North America. In both Canada and the United States only 3 of the 9 Supreme Court Justices are women, and in the US only 5 women have ever served as a Supreme Court Justice. In Mexico, with the resignation of one woman from the Supreme Court, only one woman serves on an 11-member Court.

The status of the election of women in North America to head the Executive Branch of the federal government is even worse. As of the end of 2019, close to 90 countries around the world have had an elected or appointed woman as head of State. Canada can barely be included in that category, by virtue of a 4-month period in 1993 when Kim Campbell served as Prime Minister after the Conservative Party PM resigned toward the end of his term and Campbell won the Party leadership. The United States and Mexico have never had a woman head of state, although Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in the U.S. 2016 Presidential Election but lost the Electoral College vote. Recently, in November 2020, Kamala Harris bored a hole through the concrete ceiling that has blocked North American women from the highest offices, and was elected as Vice President. She is a heartbeat away from the Presidency, but so were the majority of U.S. vice presidents who never became president.

State and provincial/territorial elections also have produced relatively few women heads of government. Currently, out of the 13 provinces and territories in Canada, only one, the Northwest Territories, has a woman First Minister, Caroline Cochrane. In Mexico, only one of the 31 States, Sonora, has a woman governor, Claudia Pavlovitch. In the United States, 9 out of 50 States (18%) currently have women serving as governors.

One elected position that might seem to be emerging as a power base for women is the office of the mayor in large cities. This perception is probably due to the high visibility of several women mayors but is not borne out by overall data. In Canada, Sandra Master, the mayor of Regina, Saskatchewan, and Valérie Plante, the mayor of Montreal, Québec, are relatively well-known, but only four other women are currently mayors of Canadian cities with populations of over 100,000. Among the 100 largest cities in the United States, only 27% are headed by women mayors; those with mayors often in the news are Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot; San Francisco, Mayor London Breed; Seattle, Mayor Jenny Durkin; Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser; and Atlanta, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. In Mexico, only two women are mayors (municipal presidents) of the 10 largest municipalities. But since they head the two largest cities in Mexico (Tijuana with Presidente Karla Ruiz MacFarland and Mexico City with Presidente Claudia Sheinbaum), they have altered the perception of the power of women in Mexico’s government. Claudia Sheinbaum in particular has been newsworthy as the first woman (and the first Jew) ever elected to head the government in Mexico City, and she was elected hot on the heels of the former mayor of Mexico City, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO, who is now president of Mexico.

How can we explain these data that show a far lower proportion of women than men in these elected or appointed government positions? The example of women reaching parity in Congress in Mexico suggests that systemic change is needed for women to successfully compete. One reason offered by men for explaining the relative lack of women in high government office is that women are more interested in very local matters than serving as the heads of large cities, states/provinces of their county; they cite statistics showing fewer women running for such offices. But a report by the Canadian Inter-Parliamentary Union has identified the reason for fewer women entering political spheres: it is not a lack of interest but the reality of violence against women.

Women who, in the face of violence against their gender, have chosen to run for high office or stand for appointments to powerful positions, have been brutalized both physically and psychologically. Gisela Raquel Mota Ocampo, the Mayor of Temixco, Mexico, was assassinated the day after her inauguration on January 16, 2016; she was just one of numerous women politicians who have been murdered in Mexico. Kim Campbell, the only Canadian women Prime Minister, was vilified during her campaign for a second term. Hillary Clinton, the only woman who was a major candidate for the U.S. presidency was not only slandered with grotesque stories about pedophilia but actually stalked on stage by her opponent, Donald Trump, a self-confessed sexual predator. And most recently, the world was riveted by a mob instigated by Trump, breaking into the U.S. Capitol and screaming for the assassination of the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.

In some ways it is miraculous that women in North America persevere in seeking high political office. They are truly the inheritors of the suffragettes and women in the Mexican Revolution who preceded them more than a century ago – risking life and limb and reputation to win the right to vote and to stand for office. We can only hope that in less than a century from now, the concrete ceiling keeping women down will be obliterated by systemic changes in government and the eradication of violence against women.

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