20 Jul 2018

The United States has a serious sexism problem -- Europe can help fix it

The US has never caught up with Europe's success at getting women into politics and maybe, as women's rights continue to disappear, it's time America changed its strategy.

Elizabeth Walsh
Elizabeth Walsh International Producer, Europe
The United States has a serious sexism problem -- Europe can help fix it - NewsMavens
Women's March 2017 NYC, Wikimedia Commons

It's the only developed country in the world that doesn’t mandate parental leave for new mothers and it also holds the unenviable title of worst maternal mortality rate for a developed nation. One in six American women will experience rape or attempted rape. Women in America still earn only 80 cents for every dollar that men make and there’s no provision in the constitution that guarantees equality on the basis of sex or gender. Just last month, a poll by the Thomson Reuters Foundation listed the United States as the 10th most dangerous country in the world for women. Only Nigeria, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Syria, Afghanistan and India fared worse.

There’s also Donald Trump, who, himself facing accusations of sexual assault by more than a dozen women, has been rolling back women’s rights since he became president.

Part of the problem is that there simply aren’t enough advocates. Women make up only 19% of Congress and there’s been little to no improvement over the past decade.

The United States lags far behind its European counterparts when it comes to getting women into politics, which could help explain why women’s rights continue to suffer and the country fails to meet the basic human rights standards that we would expect of a developed nation in 2018.

Even with the more than 600 women who announced they’ll be running for a major political office this year, the gap will persist, according to a report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The problem, the report found, isn’t voter bias -- studies show that when women do run, they fare just as well as men, if not better. Nor can it be explained away as a confidence problem. Rather, women in the United States face overwhelming institutional barriers that women in Europe do not.

It’s not just Nordic countries: while Finland, Iceland and Sweden enjoy parliamentary gender parity, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Spain, Bulgaria, France, Slovenia, Germany, the Netherlands, Romania and the United Kingdom all have impressive stats when it comes to women’s political representation at the highest levels of government. The only European countries to score worse than the United States for women’s parliamentary representation are Croatia, Greece, Hungary and Latvia.

So what’s Europe’s secret?

The report found that proportional representation rules, gender targets and quotas, public financing of election campaigns, as well as gender sensitivity and internal goal setting within institutions are responsible for getting European women into government and that it’s time Americans took note.

For many Europeans, public campaign financing and quotas sound like common sense. But in the United States, the mere suggestion of such ideas makes even some centrists stiffen and run and hide in fear of communism.

As an American who has lived, studied and worked in Europe, one of my greatest frustrations with my country’s culture is our obsession with individualism. Personal liberty is important, but too many Americans are downright opposed to group-based rights (usually, it’s the straight white men who don’t want to let go of their privilege).

What this means is that feminism in the United States often looks more like a marketing campaign with meaningless calls to “empower women” or “lean in” than, say, a group of women politicians putting so much pressure on their party to improve that they voluntarily enact their own gender quotas. Or, we could just start a women’s party and become such a threat that other established political parties get their act together. Both happened in Sweden.

If only such things were more Instagrammable, maybe they could happen here.

It’s hard to imagine Nancy Pelosi or Kristen Gillibrand holding hearings where male members of Congress are forced to answer publicly about what they’re doing to fix gender inequality or that we could ever put taxpayer dollars to -- gasp! -- fund campaigns (psst. It’s already happened and worked).

But American politics are at a breaking point. It’s time to put aside the exceptionalism myth and ask European feminists what worked in their countries and how we might make similar changes across the pond.

Who knows? In the near future, Americans could finance a new crop of Democratic Socialists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Sounds a lot better than a world where the National Rifle Association donates $30 million to the Trump campaign and faces questions from Robert Mueller and the FBI as part of the broader inquiry into Russian meddling...doesn’t it?

The bottom line is that women’s rights are disappearing quickly in the United States and there aren’t enough women in government to fight back. That needs to change and getting out the vote and simply encouraging more women to run isn’t going to cut it.

Of course, as the Carnegie report points out, neither is it enough to add women and stir. Women need to challenge the institutional norms, procedures and practices that keep women’s rights protections from making it onto the legislative agenda.

Once again, European nations offer instructive success stories, from instituting gender-sensitive voting times to establishing permanent committees that keep feminism at the center of political debate.

The good news about the United States is that, beyond the feminism-is-cool-again fluff, women’s civil society groups are highly mobilized -- in part in reaction to Donald Trump. That means there’s space for conversation and the momentum to launch new ideas.

What we need is collaboration between women politicians in Europe and their counterparts in the United States. What we need is for women to stand up to Donald Trump not just at home, but abroad, too: with American allies and especially with women. That collaboration need not be limited to leaders at the top or between diplomats. One of the most valuable takeaways from the report was that repeatedly, the force that was ultimately responsible for changing institutionalized patriarchy in European governments was a small group of persistent women who insisted on democracy.

When confronted with those who call for more walls and tear down alliances, perhaps the most radical cause of action is to start building bridges.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance.


Project #Femfacts co-financed by European Commission Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology as part of the Pilot Project – Media Literacy For All

The information and views set out on this website are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union. Neither the European Union institutions and bodies nor any person acting on their behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information contained therein.

NewsMavens is a media start-up within Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's largest liberal broadsheet published by Agora S.A. NewsMavens is currently financed by Gazeta Wyborcza and Google DNI Fund.
Is something happening in your country that Newsmavens should cover?
Zuzanna Ziomecka
Zuzanna Ziomecka EDITOR IN CHIEF
Lea Berriault-Jauvin
Lea Berriault Managing Editor
Jessica Sirotin
Jessica Sirotin EDITOR
Ada Petriczko
Ada Petriczko EDITOR
Gazeta Wyborcza, Agora SA Czerska 8/10 00-732, Warsaw Poland
The e-mail addresses provided above are not intended for recruitment purposes. Messages concerning recruitment will be deleted immediately. Your personal data provided as part of your correspondence with Zuzanna,Lea, Jessica and Ada will be processed for the purpose of resolving the issue you contacted us about. The data provided in your email is controlled by Agora S.A. with its registered office in Warsaw Czerska 8/10 Street (00-732). You can find more information about the processing and protection of your personal data at https://newsmavens.com/transparency-policy