Nancy Pelosi: Money in Politics Keeps Women Out of Office

The amount spent on negative political ads particularly hurts, she says.
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Nancy Pelosi, surrounded by male members of Congress (Reuters)

Women make up less than 20 percent of Congress. Out of 100 senators, 20 are female; out of 435 representatives, there are 78 women. According to the World Economic Forum, that puts the United States at 60th in the world for political equality between the sexes, right behind countries like Sri Lanka, Serbia, and Senegal.

At The Atlantic's Shriver Report summit on women and poverty on Wednesday, former House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi offered her thoughts on why this gap persists. “If you reduce the role of money in politics and increase the level of civility in debate, more women will run for office,” she said. 

To Pelosi, this isn't a question of ability; women are quite capable of raising the money they need to run for office, she said. This is a cultural question:  Expensive campaigns create a political environment that alienates women with families or other job prospects. 

"Look, I’ve had $100 million spent mischaracterizing who I am," she said. “Women see that and they say, 'I could never take that. I would never subject my family to any mischaracterizations about me.'"

Because of this, women who are leaders in other fields shy away from diving into the all-out battle of running for office.

A young woman who might be considering it says, well, I could do this, this, or this, or I could have somebody spend millions of dollars mischaracterizing who I am so my children come home crying from school because someone told them about their mother who they saw on TV.

We say to women, we want you to go raise 12 million dollars, and by the way, subject yourself to 10 million dollars in negative publicity, and by the way, if you’re forceful in your presentation, you’re striding too strong.

Although reforming campaign finance rules might create more equal access to dirty campaigning tools, it seems unlikely that character assassinations would subside significantly. Pelosi does have a worthwhile point about culture, though: The circus of politics might be more alienating to women than to men, especially women with families. That this observation rings true says just as much about gender politics as it does about legislative politics: If campaigning is so harmful to families, men should be just as reluctant to get involved. 

For another interesting note on the gender gap in politics, see The Atlantic's David Graham on why women spend significantly less money on political donations than men. 

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Emma Green is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the National Channel, manages TheAtlantic.com’s homepage, and writes about religion and culture.

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