By Kabir Sawhney
A star-studded lineup of speakers filled the medical school's Li Ka Shing Center on Saturday, May 7 for the Stanford Conference on Women's Political Empowerment, sponsored by Stanford in Government. The event brought together some of the biggest names in Bay Area and California politics, including Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren "70 from San Jose, Attorney General Kamala Harris and Elaine Alquist, a state senator representing Santa Clara.
The event centered around four panel discussions, each of which explored a different obstacle to increased political participation by women. A panel featuring law professor Deborah Rhode discussed the gender bias in media coverage of candidates for office and explained how the media industry itself lacked large numbers of women.
The most well attended panel, entitled "Strategies for Empowerment," brought together Lofgren and three Bay Area activists whose nonprofits sought to help women become more politically active. The panelists pointed to a severe lack of participation by women in national and local politics. Mary Hughes of Hughes & Company, a political consultancy, explained that about 16 percent of congressional representatives are women, and that the number of women candidates has basically stagnated since 1992.
Hughes also said the issue was not that male candidates were generally more successful in politics than their female counterparts, but that there are simply many more men running for office than women.
"If women run, they win in the same proportions as men," Hughes said. "So it's not because we don't know how to win. We raise the same amount of money."
"What we don't know how to do very well is figure out why women aren't running," she added.
Anne Moses, the director of IGNITE, a non-profit geared toward helping women in high school and college become more politically active, shed some light on the issues that prevent women from running for office. She highlighted several issues, including a general lack of political awareness among young people.
"When Nancy Pelosi was Speaker of the House, in San Francisco, students didn't recognize her name, and they didn't know what Speaker of the House was," she said. "We were sitting in San Francisco, in her district, where she was in the paper every minute of every day."
Moses added that women face a set of challenges in running for office that are not experienced by their male counterparts. Most prominent among these obstacles were the feeling that women are unqualified, generally have less robust support networks and the inherent difficulties in simultaneously running for office and having a family life.
"Not only do women feel less qualified than men when they are objectively qualified, but they actually place higher value on having qualifications," she said. "They think that you need to have multiple advanced degrees to run for office. Men don't actually think that, and in fact they're right."
Lofgren described her political career, which began upon her graduation from Stanford in 1970 with an internship at the office of California Congressman Don Edwards, whose seat she later won in 1994. She spoke generally about her experiences as a woman in Congress.
When one member of the audience asked whether it was better to support a liberal male candidate or a conservative woman, Lofgren responded that policy positions took precedence.
"Not all feminists are women," she said.
The conference closed with an address from Harris, the first woman to become California's attorney general. She described the arc of her career, from her time in the Alameda County prosecutor's office to her successful bid to become San Francisco's district attorney.
She described the type of questions she faced right after becoming the DA in the city.
"The reporter would come up to me and put a camera and microphone in my face and say, "So, what's it like to be the first women district attorney of San Francisco?'" Harris said. "I said, "Honestly, I don't know what to tell you. I've always been a woman.' And then I would say, "But I'm sure a man could do the job just as well.'"