Remarks at Women and Foreign Policy: Election Season

Catherine M. Russell
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Washington, DC
November 12, 2015

As prepared

Good morning. It’s my pleasure to welcome you to the State Department for our second Women and Foreign Policy convening.

We started this series so that we could bring together experts, practitioners, and policymakers to talk about difficult challenges women are facing and working—what’s really making the difference for women on the ground. The key question for us is, how can their experiences inform policy, development, and diplomacy.

With more than 70 elections happening around the world this year, it really is an ideal time to look at women and elections. And if there was any doubt that this is an issue worth our attention, there was an interesting moment last week that made clear that women and elections are an important topic.

I’m talking a sketch on the Jimmy Kimmel show. Last week, Kimmel sat down with two boys and two girls to ask them what they thought about the idea of a woman running for president. This is obviously a timely topic for us here in the United States, since there are women candidates in both parties. But I wanted to read to you a few quotes from these kids.

When Kimmel asks them to name a woman president, they’re all quick to tell him there are none. But then one of the boys — who is probably no older than 12 years old — says that women can’t be president because they are “too girly” and they would paint the White House pink.

Then he asks them if women can do anything men can do. The girls are quick to say yes, and the boys are quick to say no, women can’t because they’re “too weak.”

Finally, Kimmel asks what would happen if a woman president ran a war. The boys say she would lose and she would be scared. But one of the girls—perhaps intuitively understanding the importance of the women, peace, and security agenda, even at such a young age—says that a woman president would make the war stop so people could be healthier and they wouldn’t die.

Who knows how these kids were prompted, or how the piece was edited. It was funny, in a way, but at the same time it was also discouraging. The girls were on board with women in politics, and the boys seemed to already harbor some of the stereotypes that hold women back from fully participating.

The numbers suggest they aren’t alone. Although women make up 50 percent of the world’s population. 24 women either serve as head of state or head of government, out of more than 300 world leaders. Just 22 percent of parliamentarians are women. And less than 20 percent of government ministers are women, with the majority serving in the fields of education and health.

These numbers are low in the United States as well. Only 20 percent of Congress, 18 percent of mayors and 12 percent of governors are women.

Across the globe, these are the leaders who make critical decisions, and simply put, there aren’t enough women in these jobs.

That’s not to say we haven’t seen progress, both here in the United States and in countries around the world. There are more women in elected office now than ever before, but the numbers are still unacceptably low. This morning we have two incredible women parliamentarians who are here to share their experiences as candidates and elected officials.

But women as candidates –that is just one piece of the puzzle. We’ve seen here in the United States how women as voters are also tremendously important. When women are taken seriously by candidates and political parties, the issues they care about are taken seriously as well. There’s a reason that the first bill President Obama signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act — and that’s because elected officials know that fair pay is an issue women care about – and President Obama wanted to signal his clear support.

The truth is that women leaders often raise issues that have been typically overlooked. They reach out to marginalized groups, and they have a unique knowledge that stems from their roles and responsibilities and experiences in a society. They can have a real impact on all of our gender goals, from empowering women in the economy, to ensuring girls can go to school, to promoting peace and stability in communities and countries.

In societies with strong, inclusive democracies, we are more likely to see peaceful transfers of power, instead of violent struggles for control. We see strong rule of law and equal opportunity, instead of impunity and corruption. We see good public policy that promotes progress. And for the United States, we see allies and partners that can help advance global peace, security, and prosperity.

So from a foreign policy perspective, women in elections are critical. Their voices — as voters and as candidates — need to be valued and heard. But for that to happen, we need women to be engaged in all parts of the political process. And right now there are far too many barriers limiting their participation in far too many countries around the world.

In many places, women can’t vote if there aren’t women observers or election workers who can staff and monitor polling places segregated by gender. Or women can’t vote if gender-based violence during elections keeps them at home. And women can’t run if their community frowns upon women playing leadership roles. Or if—as we’ve even seen in some cases—their political party demands they pay to play with sex.

The good news is that many people are working to address these problems. Today, we have a great panel of experts here to talk about the barriers, the solutions, and the next steps they see in women’s political participation.

But before we get to that, we have a special guest to present a short clip from the documentary The Supreme Price, which tells the story of a mother and daughter working to raise the voices of women in Nigeria. Please join me in welcoming the Executive Director of Women Make Movies, Debra Zimmerman.