1992’s “Year of the Woman” marked a surge in female representation in governance at the federal level. Stirred by the increasingly apparent deficit of female voices in government — highlighted by the 1991 congressional hearings surrounding Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas and his alleged sexual harassment of Anita Hill, voters embraced new female candidates at the polls, tripling the number of women senators from two to six. But more than two decades later, female representation in government remains limited and women’s issues such as abortion access continue to be as contentious as ever. While the count of female senators has grown to 20, female representatives number 78 and female governors clock in at five, those numbers remain mere fractions of the male totals in governance. States such as Texas, Mississippi and North Carolina have recently become leaders in a national trend to roll back women’s access to abortion and in 2013, the Violence Against Women Act, regularly renewed since its passage in 1994, faced major opposition from Republicans in Congress.
But as 2016 approaches, the potential for a banner election cycle for women is becoming evident. With presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton leading presumptive Republican nominee Chris Christie by 10 points in early polling, the idea of a female president seems more realistic than ever. The Democratic women of the Senate have already banded together to support her predicted campaign with a letter. In Texas, which has had only two female governors — just one since 1935 — the gubernatorial campaign waged by Democrat Wendy Davis is receiving national attention. That renown followed a filibuster by Davis earlier this year in opposition to a piece of anti-abortion legislation championed by Gov. Rick Perry.
Notable in the 1992 campaigns by female candidates was an undercurrent of feminist motivation — the implication that the lack of women in government was itself a political and moral problem. The 1991 march to the Senate by women representatives in protest of the Thomas confirmation hearings highlighted the growing sense of female political solidarity, while feminist events such as the 1992 March for Women’s Lives by the National Organization for Women refocused national attention on gender inequity. While the seats women stand to gain in 2016 massively outweigh those of 1992, the level of attention focused on feminist issues by current candidates is negligible. Clinton’s recent pre-campaign speeches have staying firmly centrist and economically oriented — even her main potential left-wing challenger, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, has been hesitant to wade significantly into non-economic issues. Davis’s platform does not name abortion and contains only one reference to women — with regard to female members of the armed forces. Should 2016 be the next Year of the Woman, it’s looking like it could be so without a national conversation on the structural inequalities affecting women.
In her 2012 essay, “Women are not an interest group,” University of Colorado women’s and gender studies professor Michaele Ferguson argues that on the campaign trail, feminist discussions are subsumed into the more innocuous category of “women’s issues.” Ferguson suggests widely documented U.S. gender inequalities are narrowed to individual pieces of legislation. Wage disparity is talked about not as a problem of women being historically denied access to higher paying jobs, but as something to be solved by the Lilly Ledbetter Act — complications in accessing health care as a result of employers’s and insurers’s hesitance to provide comprehensive maternity and contraceptive plans becomes a footnote in the debate over the Affordable Care Act. The reluctance to embrace a more explicitly feminist line of debate, she argues, stems as much from voter disdain for feminism and political convenience as it does from a desire to avoid being labeled a radical or single-issue candidate. The result is a political dialogue on women that fails to explore why female political representation has value in and of itself.
Whether or not women aiming for 2016 are ready to open up a conversation about the deeper issues that cause their gender to remain a political minority, the most visible candidate among them may be willing to talk at least about fixing the disparity. Earlier this month, Clinton launched her “No Ceilings” campaign with little fanfare through her and her husband’s Clinton Foundation. The initiative — a clear reference to the political barriers faced by women that Clinton discussed frequently during her 2008 primary campaign — focuses not on the issues of American female candidates but the condition of women and girls around the world, both drawing on and reminding voters of her efforts as Secretary of State. By casually — and non-politically — setting the tone early on for how she as a candidate will approach “women’s issues,” Clinton is smartly positioning herself above the single-issue image affixed by the media to female candidates but still making a feminist statement. Rather than distancing herself from the politics of gender, Clinton is quietly working to redefine the political conversation on women ahead of 2016 — and potentially the next Year of the Woman.