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One on One with Professor and Expert on Women in Politics, Dr. Michele L. Swers

Michele Swers

Dr. Michele Swers, Associate Professor, Department of Government, Georgetown University.

By Caroline Dobuzinskis

Throughout this month, IWPR will be interviewing speakers appearing at our 25th anniversary celebration on May 22. Our esteemed speakers will share with us their own stories of accomplishment and perseverance, their perspectives on women’s advances, and their hopes for future progress. 

Michele L. Swers is an Associate Professor of American Government in the Department of Government at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., focusing on how the gender of elected representatives plays a part in congressional policymaking. Dr. Swers has appeared as an expert in a range of media outlets, including PBS’ “The News Hour with Jim Lehrer,” CQ Weekly, Politico, CNN, as well as in national and state newspapers.

Dr. Swers is the author of two books on women’s representation in Congress, The Difference Women Make: The Policy Impact of Women in Congress (University of Chicago Press, 2002) and Women in the Club: Gender and Policy Making in the Senate (University of Chicago Press, 2013).

Tell me about yourself. What was your personal journey to your current career?

I always loved history. I read books about the presidents and other great historical figures. My grandmother gave me a book about first ladies and she told me stories about Eleanor Roosevelt. This sparked an interest in learning about the role of women in history and politics. I also found that I enjoyed teaching. Before history tests, I would have friends over at my house and run study sessions. I was a high school social studies teacher before I went back to school for my Ph.D. in political science.

I was in college during the 1992 “Year of the Woman” elections, and I was struck by the fact that my political science texts clearly stated that all members of Congress respond to re-election incentives and the nature of their districts. Therefore, the identity of the individual member did not matter, as long as they stayed true to the district. At the same time, EMILY’s List was raising vast sums of money, not to elect all Democrats, but specifically to elect pro-choice Democratic women. Why would a savvy political organization do this if any Democrat would pursue their agenda? I went to graduate school to investigate the question of whether electing women has an impact on policy outcomes.

What do you consider to be your greatest achievements?

I am very fortunate to have a fulfilling career and a loving family. As a professor at Georgetown, I work with very smart and energetic students who are interested in politics and want to make a contribution to society. I am able to do research that I love on the policy impact of electing women to Congress. I have written two books on the subject. My most recent book, Women in the Club: Gender and Policy Making in the Senate (University of Chicago Press) was just published this month. I have a wonderful husband and two beautiful children. My job allows me to spend time with them and support their education and growth.

What obstacles did you encounter along your path to a successful career?

Academic jobs are difficult to get. To get the best education I could and maximize my marketability, I had to endure several years of a commuter marriage. Once you have a job, the biological clock and the tenure clock are not very compatible so that affected when I decided to have my children. On the whole, I have been very fortunate in my career path. Many women who came before me had to endure significant discrimination and undervaluing of their research and contributions. I benefitted from their sacrifices and have tried to support the women coming up behind me.

How do you think that the landscape has changed for women in the past 25 years or, more recently, in the past decade?

Over the past 25 years, opportunities for women in education and the workforce have greatly expanded. The presence of women in the workforce is almost universally accepted and women can compete for top jobs in all fields. However, society has not reconciled the advancement of women into the workforce with the imperative of caring for children.  Fathers are still expected to be breadwinners and the United States does not have a system of paid family leave or universal quality childcare. This lack of attention to issues of work-family balance creates difficulties for single and two parent families at all income levels.

Are there certain policies to support women that you think are still lacking in the United States?

We need to find ways to support families in their efforts to balance the demands of their jobs and the health and welfare of their families. Creation and expansion of family leave to include paid leave, the development of affordable, quality childcare, and improved regulation of childcare would improve the lives of women and their families. Tax credits and deductions would encourage businesses to offer family-friendly policies such as paid leave, on-site childcare, and telecommuting opportunities.  A workforce that can properly care for their children and be confident about their well-being will be a more productive workforce.

You can hear Dr. Swers speak at IWPR’s May 22 anniversary celebration, “Making Research Count for Women: Launching the Next 25 Years.”

Election 2012: What Can We Learn Now from Women’s Equality Day?

This article by Susan Bailey is reposted from the blog, Girl with Pen (girlwpen.com).

This year marked the 41st anniversary of Women’s Equality Day, marked each year on August 26th to commemorate the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment which granted women the right to vote in 1920. For many not actively engaged in women’s issues, it’s merely another in a long list of little known awareness days. But this election year’s escalating anti-woman rhetoric is crazy making. I feel like Alice falling down the rabbit hole into the land of the absurd. When ‘rape’ and ‘legitimate’ can be used in the same breath and women and men of reason are called upon to counter medieval constructs of female biology, I need the lessons of Women’s Equality Day. Maybe others do, too.

Women’s Equality Day originated after New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug proposed August 26th be so designated in honor of the 1920 ratification of the Woman’s Suffrage Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The designation reflected the renewed energy of the ‘second wave’ of the feminist movement. It was an attempt to reclaim lost history.

By the 1960‘s, the struggles preceding the final ratification the 19th amendment had been largely forgotten. If school books mentioned women’s rights at all, a single sentence usually sufficed: “Women were given the vote in 1920.” The 70-year battle for women’s suffrage was not considered a significant part of our national history.

Beginning at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 and continuing until 1920 when the Tennessee legislature became the 36th state required for a two thirds majority, women battled for a Constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote. They organized, lobbied, protested and picketed. Their efforts were mocked and ridiculed. Protesters were arrested, jailed, and force fed though tubes shoved down their throats. Leaders did not always agree on tactics. But women persisted. Far from being given the right to vote, women fought hard to win it.

Some of the rights women worked for and achieved over the years have remained controversial. There are many battles still to be fought and re-fought. The right to vote and to run for office is not one of these. It stands unquestioned.

But a key result the women and men who fought for suffrage expected, equal representation of women in elected office, remains elusive. Ninety two years after women won the right to vote, women make up barely 17 percent of the U.S. Congress. This percentage leaves us tied for 78th place with Turkmenistan in global rankings of national elected representatives.

At the state level it’s not much better. Women hold 23.4 percent of statewide executive offices and 23.8 percent of the seats in state legislatures this year.

Although I find it hard to believe given our current national discussions, I realize that some may still ask why it all matters.

Of course, neither women nor men march in lock step, or agree on every issue. Certainly many men support women-friendly legislation and there are women who vote for anti-woman initiatives. But studies repeatedly show that women, no matter what political party they represent, tend to sponsor and vote for legislation and programs that support women and families in larger percentages than do their male colleagues.

Women do not “misspeak” about rape and its consequences. Women will not fall in line with statements or policies that imply that women are governed by our bodies, rather than our minds.

U.S. Representative Todd Akin (R-MO) and his fellow travelers may be the last gasp of a crumbling patriarchy; I for one certainly hope so. Or they may be better described as part of a larger set of global fundamentalist efforts—of various origins—attempting to control women and their bodies. Maybe it’s some of both. But ‘last gaspers’ and fundamentalists can be equally dangerous and destructive. We cannot turn away in disgust. We cannot fool ourselves that lies and pseudoscience will fade away.

Our strongest weapon in the battles ahead may be the one our foremothers won for us. The 20th century began with women winning the right to vote. The 21st century is the time to fulfill the promise inherent in that victory. More women need to run for office. And RIGHT NOW we ALL need to canvass, phone bank, donate and vote for candidates who will fight for women’s equality. It won’t happen any other way.

Susan McGee Bailey, Ph.D., served as Executive Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW), and a Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies and Education at Wellesley College for 25 years. Following college she taught in Asia, Latin America and the United States; experiences that fostered her commitment to gender equitable education.

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