The U.S. Congress, purportedly the pinnacle of the world’s strongest representative democracy, ranks 71st among 157 nations in the inclusion of women inside its hallowed halls.

For starters, we trail Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Try saying that fast three times in a row.

America’s sorry placement on a scale of sexism compiled by the international Inter-Parliamentary Union was Topic A at last week’s annual big-bash luncheon of the Santa Barbara Women’s Political Committee, where keynoter and veteran California strategist Mary Hughes sought support for 2012 Project, a new, nonpartisan national campaign to elect more female members of Congress and state legislatures.

“It’s not okay that it’s like this,” Hughes said, “and it’s on us to change it.”

WOMEN’S ALL-STAR LINEUP: At the Montecito Country Club lunch (Cobb salad with choice of chicken or tofu, iced tea, and insulin-shock brownies), Hughes addressed an audience of 140 women (including S.B. elected officials Marty Blum, Lois Capps, Annette Cordero, Doreen Farr, Cathy Murillo, Kate Parker, Helene Schneider, and Janet Wolf, along with Goleta’s Margaret Connell, Susan Epstein, Pam Kinsley, and Paula Perotte) and four men (Salud Carbajal, Grant House, me, and a guy in a gray suit I didn’t recognize and didn’t get to talk to).

Mary Hughes

Bottom line: While women are 50 percent of the population and 55 percent of the electorate, efforts to erase historic gender imbalance in politics lag behind those in academia, business, law, medicine, and other professions. Two decades after 1992’s ballyhooed “Year of the Woman” election, when female membership of Congress, um, soared to double digits at 11 percent, women now hold just 17 percent of House and Senate seats, a number that actually declined in the 2010 midterms.

As a practical matter, Hughes said, there are major consequences behind the numbers that help shape the dysfunctional status quo in Washington and state capitals. Citing research by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, where the 2012 Project is based, she said that elected women are less partisan, more transparent, and more focused on real-life issues like child care, education, family health, and preschool than men.

Research shows that women who run for office win as often as men; the big difference, Hughes said, is that they enter politics far less frequently than men because of factors ranging from their dominant role as “family caretakers for children, and increasingly for parents,” to concerns for privacy in “a YouTube world” and the challenge of defeating entrenched male incumbents.

Intriguingly, however, the biggest reason many women who have forged successful careers in other fields say they don’t run is that “nobody asked me,” Hughes said, in sharp contrast to male politicians, who overwhelmingly self-select in seeking public office.

“Life is like high school,” she added. “But you know, politics is not a prom.”

PERILS OF MICHELE: Besides its public education operation, the 2012 Project recruits “accomplished women in the private and public sectors who have not previously considered running for office,” according to its mission statement, and also serves as a clearinghouse to connect candidates to more than 100 other organizations nationwide that offer fundraising, strategy, and candidate training services.

Here and throughout much of California, of course, urging the election of women is preaching to the choir: “In Santa Barbara, women in office are the norm, not the exception,” as former supervisor Susan Rose put it in her introduction of Hughes.

But this year presents an exceptional opportunity to increase the number of women in office, Hughes said, because the once-a-decade process of redistricting, which creates more open congressional and legislative seats, coincides with a presidential race, which boosts turnout, a confluence that only occurs every 20 years.

In Santa Barbara, by far the most controversial element of her pitch is its insistence on absolutely neutral nonpartisanship, a requirement that means the project supports, for example, pro-life Tea Party Republican candidates as aggressively as pro-choice Democrats.

In an interview after her talk, Hughes defended the stance as “a very long-term view,” reasoning that women of all partisan stripes can find common purpose on issues like schools.

But some women’s committee members called it a deal breaker: “Support Michele Bachmann? I don’t think so,” said one. “Gender is not always more important than party.”

The 2012 Project is online at


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