The Andrus Center for Public Policy kicks off its conference, “Transforming America: Women and Leadership in the 21st Century,” this evening at Boise State University. A key goal of the conference is to investigate what work remains to create what U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (speaking in Boise tonight), has called the opportunity for all women “to earn respect, responsibility, advancement and remuneration based on ability.”

Political observer and Occidental College professor Caroline Heldman, PhD.

Courtesy Caroline Heldman
Political observer and Occidental College professor Caroline Heldman.

Caroline Heldman, a political observer and Occidental College associate professor of politics, notes that women are still underrepresented in America. In 2007, Heldman authored a book, Rethinking Madam President, examining what would be an historic first for United States: the election of a female Commander in Chief. America has a long way to go in order to answer Justice O’Connor’s charge, according to Heldman.

“I think we’d have to have a fundamental paradigm shift, where we don’t view women as second-class citizens in this country,” she said, on the phone from her home in California. “That language is talking about achieving a goal based upon their merit, not their identity. To do that, we’d have to have a fundamental shift in how we view women.”

Heldman speaks at 4:15 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 5, at Boise State as part of the Andrus Center for Public Policy’s Transforming America conference. Tickets are sold out, but an overflow room is available in the student union at Boise State.

Instead, women are considered de jure citizens, but not treated by society as equal citizens. In the workplace, women earn smaller salaries for the same work. Leadership is defined as a masculine occupation. An America with a more equitable proportion of female elected officials would be necessarily more representative.

“Any time you have a vast underrepresentation of a group, numerically, you have a vast underrepresentation of a group when it comes to policy. We would see a different agenda that encompasses the needs of the entire population and not just those who are overrepresented. In the workplace, if we had gender equity, we’d probably have a national family leave policy. We’re one of the only industrialized nations that does not,” she said.

Yet women who vie for America’s highest office are met with sexist and gendered media coverage, according to Heldman. Case in point, the 2008 presidential race. Then-candidate for Hillary Clinton received was called “unladylike,” according to Heldman, for remaining in the race.

She notes that in the struggle for gender equity in the U.S., history has not been marked by incremental progress.

“We started seeing significant gains starting in the early 70s,” said Heldman. “But in the last decade, with an exception of the number of women senators, we’ve seen a small increase in the number of female CEOs. I think it’s important that we keep in mind that progress isn’t linear—we generally see progress, and then a stagnation.”

Almost 100 years have passed since Rebecca Latimer Felton was appointed to office by then governor of Georgia, Thomas Hardwick. On November 21, 1922, Felton took the oath of office, an event which marked a milestone: Felton was the first female Senator in the nation’s history. Flash-forward 91 years. In January of this year, the U.S. Senate made history once more—swearing into office a record 20 female senators, including 16 Democrats and four Republicans.

America fast approaches a century since ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment—the constitutional postscript confirming the right to vote for citizens of all genders. But in the years since, one would think female senators should, given the majority women enjoy in the nation’s demography, come to account for half of the 100-member body. Instead, just under a quarter of  senators are women. Felton remains the only woman to ever represent Georgia in the U.S. Senate. Congress, designed by the country’s forefathers (and they were, alas, all men), as a body representative of the populace, remains overwhelmingly male. Overall, the 113th Congress includes 101 women across both chambers, but despite historic strides, significant barriers still exist for women seeking leadership roles in the United States.

If women are to assume leadership roles, men and women must work to break down the barriers at a young age, according to Heldman.

“There are lots of barriers to women getting into positions of leadership, which starts with the socialization of little girls. We often think of barriers to women in leadership as a glass ceiling right before women receive the top corporate position, but a better metaphor is a labyrinth: women are discouraged from being leaders at a very young age, whether it’s the careers that they’re tracked into, or their peers not supporting them being ambitious,” said Heldman.

In an examination of sexual objectification in American culture titled “The Sexy Lie” delivered at a TEDxYouth event in San Diego, Heldman makes her point dramatically by removing her makeup, on stage, at the end of her well-reasoned critique.

“We raise our little boys to view their bodies as tools to master their environments,” Heldman tells the audience early in her speech. “We raise our little girls to view their bodies as projects to constantly be improved. What if women started to view their bodies as tools to master their environment? As tools to get you from one place to the next? As these amazing vehicles for moving through the world in a new way?”

When asked if she saw in herself leadership qualities at an early age, Heldman had this to say:

“I’m not interested in pursuing leadership myself… I think the people who don’t want to be leaders actually make the best leaders, which is kind of a conundrum when talking about women being leaders at a young age,” she said.

With her quick wit and decisive insight, Heldman might just be the embodiment of O’Connor’s words.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.