Prof. Piscopo: So that tells us that what might now be happening is not a temporary flash in the pan, such as you had in 1992, but perhaps a sustained change among women. And what we know from a political science research is that women are more likely to run for reasons of policy change, for reasons of wanting to serve their community; we see that men are more likely to run because it’s a career that they’ve always thought about having and it’s a career they’re really interested in, whereas men– women are more likely to be motivated by a need for change or a need for policy at a particular moment and this is certainly a moment where we know that many women are motivated, not just by kind of sexism that the Trump administration’s promoted, but by other issues like climate change, gun violence, perhaps more recently police violence and so I’m optimistic that we might now see more permanent change rather than that flash in the pan that was ’92.


Prof. Sardo: What if we banned men from political office and put women in charge for a bit? Would it result in better political decisions? This thought experiment goes back almost as old as political theory. Aristophanes’ play The Assemblywomen envisions a female takeover of the Athenian Assembly that leads to the end of all war and the creation of a socialist utopia. Plato famously insisted that his infamous “philosopher-kings” could just as well be “philosopher-queens.” In 17th century, Margaret Cavendish’s novel, The Blazing World, envisions a world ruled by an absolutist Empress. This theme continues to animate science fiction from Joanna Russ’s The Female Man to Naomi Alderman’s The Power.

But this isn’t just a question for speculative theory or fiction. My guest today argues that democracy depends on the extent to which women are able to fully participate in politics – both as voters and as elected officials. This means that even if women participate as voters, if women aren’t fairly represented in the highest levels of political leadership, we shouldn’t describe that society as fully democratic.

Today’s guest is Dr. Jennifer Piscopo, Associate Professor of Politics here at Occidental College. Her research and teaching focuses on gender and comparative politics, and she has published extensively on gender quotas and legislative institutions in Latin America in many peer-reviewed scholarly journals. Her public writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post among other venues. She joined me to talk about gender representation and democracy, the role of female political leaders in responding to the coronavirus, and who Joe Biden might choose to be his running mate. We spoke a few weeks ago, so some of the political forces may have shifted, but her insights on to the general concerns driving Biden’s decision remain important.

Prof. Sardo: Professor Piscopo, thank you for joining me. How are you today?

Prof. Piscopo: I am great, thank you, Professor Sardo, it’s fun to be on.

Prof. Sardo: Great, so let’s go ahead and get started. In a recent piece in The Boston Review, you and your co-author Shawna Shames argued that without women there is no democracy. Can you summarize what this means and what this means for American democracy going forward?

Prof. Piscopo: Sure. So in the United States we usually learn that democracy means, among other things, rights and freedoms for all. So, specifically the minimal rights the country needs to extend to be considered a democracy is suffrage, the right to choose your leaders, and free and fair elections. So what we point out of the piece is that countries have been defined as democracies long before suffrage has been extended to all citizens, and long before suffrage is universal. 

So if we date the founding of the United States and the Constitutional Convention of 1788 at that moment suffrage was highly restricted. It wasn’t until 1920 that women received the right to vote and even then Jim Crow laws in the south and southwest made it very difficult for Black women and other women of color to exercise the franchise.

So one thing that we point out is that if we take the definition of of suffrage and its connection to democracy seriously, we would define countries as democracies much later in their political evolution than we then we currently do. So that is one of the points we make in the article. 

The second point that we make, and I elaborate on this on a forthcoming piece that’s the cover story of that spring 2020 edition of The Boston Review, is that suffrage is defined as the right to elect and be elected. And in the United States we very much focus on that first part, the right to elect, the right to vote and we neglect that there is the second side of it, which is the right to be elected. And worldwide men hold 75% of all legislative offices. And in the United States, despite the numbers of women running for office in 2018, women hold 23% of the seats in the House and 26% of the seats in the Senate.

So if one truly believes that men and women are equal in their talents and capabilities, then the only explanation for this imbalance in political representation is the systematic discrimination against women in accessing political posts. And so that’s a failure of democracy’s promise of equal rights and that’s a failure of suffrage is two sides of not just the right to vote, but the right to be elected.

Prof. Sardo: So it sounds like it’s– you’re taking very seriously Aristotle’s idea of citizenship as both ruling and being ruled in turn and that if we actually want to take this idea of democracy as everyone not only participates in electing our leaders, but everyone can be a leader that we should be much more restrictive when we’re talking about who is– which states are democracies. Does that sound right to you?

Prof. Piscopo: Exactly. Actually, the opening paragraph of that piece quotes exactly that line from Aristotle, right, which is that citizens are those who elect and be elected, paraphrasing, in that way and sort of taking that out to point out that if we look beyond the United States, actually other countries have paid much more attention to suffrage as the right to elect and the right to be elected. So, other countries have taken a series of steps to not just enable members of disenfranchised groups to exercise the vote, but to enable members of disenfranchised groups like women to actually be in office. So we have almost 80 countries worldwide right now that have quotas for political candidates that political parties have to run certain numbers of women, certain numbers of ethnic minorities and that’s that enforcement of not just the right to vote, but the right to be elected and attempts to really push forward the full diversification of representative bodies like legislatures. 

Prof. Sardo: Okay. So speaking of women running for office, so many attribute that 2018 and the term dynamics to both the record number of women running for office and the role of women in the electorate more generally, and 2020 is shaping up to break those records in terms of women running for office. So can you give us a bit of context here, what might be driving this swell? Is it reaction to the the 2000– still reaction to the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump? Is there broader trends? Are there other things happening that might be explaining this?

Prof. Piscopo: Yeah, I think that’s a great question. So 2018 is often compared to 1992, right, and I think that’s a good starting point. So,1992 was called “the year of the woman,” and it was a year that a record number of women ran for US Congress. And the background to that is that right before the 1992 elections was the Clarence Thomas hearings, right, and so very famously Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas of sexual misconduct and she testified before an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee as part of Thomas’s confirmation hearings about her experiences and– and was treated quite poorly by that all-male committee. And so that led to sort of a groundswell of outrage and frustration and an uptick in the number of women running for office.

So 2018, where we saw another jump in women running for office, was thought of as “the second year of the woman,” right, a direct response to the election of Trump and the failure to elect Clinton. What’s really important is that between ’92 and 2018, the number of women in office fell. So we have this kind of uptick in ’92 and this uptick in 2018. And so what’s really exciting is that at this moment in 2020 we have more women running for office than we did in 2018, and actually filing is only complete for congressional races in 44 of the 50 states. So we should expect to see even more women filing in the next few months. 

So that tells us that what might now be happening is not a temporary flash in the pan, such as you had in 1992, but perhaps a sustained change among women. And what we know from a political science research is that women are more likely to run for reasons of policy change, for reasons of wanting to serve their community; we see that men are more likely to run because it’s a career that they’ve always thought about having and it’s a career they’re really interested in, whereas men– women are more likely to be motivated by a need for change or a need for policy at a particular moment and this is certainly a moment where we know that many women are motivated, not just by kind of sexism that the Trump administration’s promoted, but by other issues like climate change, gun violence, perhaps more recently police violence and so I’m optimistic that we might now see more permanent change rather than that flash in the pan that was ’92. 

Prof. Sardo: So less have reactions to current events and most have reactions to particular electoral outcomes and more of kind of building actual momentum to make it possibly feasible that for women, running for office might be that career that they’ve always dreamed about and the way that it is for men. So that is kind of breaking down, that– the gendering of even motivations for running for elected office.

Prof. Piscopo: That’s right. I mean, one of the important facts, right, is that as more women enter office, it becomes seen as something that more women can do, right. This idea that you cannot be what you cannot see. So one of the key arguments for trying to diversify office along any dimension, in this case, you know, my research focuses on women, is what we might think of as role models. So the more women in office, the more women who realize that that is something that is possible for them. 

One of the statistics that I really like is that so far about 15% of the candidate– the women candidates that lost in 2018 are running again in 2020. And so often we don’t focus on the losers, right. But one of the big questions is that for first time candidates, if they run and if they lose will they be discouraged from running in the future? Because, of course, one of the challenges for winning in the United States is the incumbency bias, right. So, first time candidates are new and they’re challenging incumbents, whether they’re women or men, they’re just not likely to win. So the fact that we see among 15% of women who lost in 2018 a running again, that’s actually a really positive number. It shows that losing is not discouraging those who are traditionally out of politics from continuing to want to break in.

Prof. Sardo: So speaking of this aspect of representation and providing very public and visible women, Vice President Joe Biden has famously pledged to pick a woman as his running mate for the for the Vice Presidency. What do you think the significance of this decision is? Is this a positive step? Is this just a symbolic optics? Is this, is this trying to play to momentum in the Democratic Party or is– do you think this is actually something more, more than just kind of like a cynical politics, I guess.

Prof. Piscopo So I think the context in which Biden made this pledge is– is really important, right. So in the Democratic Primary for presidency, there were a lot of strong women candidates and there were two women candidates who made it to, say, the final rounds going into Super Tuesday. And that was Senator Warren and Senator Klobuchar. And so this was exciting in that it was the moment where there were some really– there were women that were very viable contenders for the nomination itself. But by the time you get to the final Democratic presidential debate you have– the field is narrow to the candidates who traditionally look like presidents, right, two white men: Biden and Sanders. 

And so there’s a context in the presidential debate to hold these candidates accountable for women’s issues and it’s very visible that Warren and Klobuchar are now off that stage, right, they’re out of, out of the race. So Sanders promises in this debate a cabinet that will look like America and then Biden gets to go next. And he one-ups Sanders essentially, right, and says, “I’ll not only have a cabinet that looks like America, but I’ll– I’ll pick a woman Vice President.”

I want to point out that when he actually said this, he followed up––and I pulled the quote in preparation for this podcast, so I did my homework––he followed up and said, “There’s a number. There’s a number of”–– hold on, let me find it––“There’s a number of women qualified to be president tomorrow. I would pick a woman.” And I thought that was really interesting. Flip it around. Could you imagine a man saying, “There’s a number of men qualified to be vice president, I’ll pick a man tomorrow”? And I think that’s still signals this idea that when men are the default, women’s place has to be justified, right, Biden makes the promise and immediately backs it up with saying, “oh, but don’t worry. The women are qualified for this position.” 

So I think it’s enormously important that he made this commitment, I think it will be fantastic to have a woman VP. But I think there– you still see, right, the way it’s still constructed as outside-of-the-norm, as if women are rare birds in politics and your presence requires extra justification.

Prof. Sardo: So even if it’s less potentially offensive to some as Romney’s famous “binders full of women” comment, it’s still that same line of thinking that– that this is– the politics is a masculine domain, and if you’re going to have women in this domain, you have to justify that in a way that you wouldn’t for for for men engaging in political––

Prof. Piscopo: That’s right. And let me just say Biden was completely well-intentioned in saying that, right. But, you know, as academics, we have the luxury of being critical and taking these these harsher views. So, yeah.

Prof. Sardo: So speculating a bit: what do you think is going on in the Biden war room, trying to determine who this well-qualified woman will be for it to be his running mate? What considerations do you think are at play in this decision ideologically, electorally, representatively? What do you think are some of the things that they’re– that team is considering?

Prof. Piscopo: Right, well, we know presidents always think about the VP pick as ticket balancing, right. So that can be ticket balancing in terms of geography. I think for the Biden campaign, they are definitely thinking about ticket balancing in terms of ideology, right. So Biden is seen as a more moderate candidate. His ascension to the nomination––and I know that the convention hasn’t happened yet, but it’s all but guaranteed, right––his ascension to the nomination is is seen as a victory for the moderate wing of the party. So he might be thinking about a pick that would appeal to the more progressive wing of the party. And I think the other consideration of course is his race, right. I’d be very surprised if––and especially in this current political moment where Black Lives Matter has very importantly made their– their voices heard––if he’s not thinking of a woman of color, and particularly a Black woman. 

I think there’s another dimension to Biden’s pick that hasn’t been talked about a lot, and that’s a really long-term strategy, right. So Biden is 77. So let’s say he runs in 2020, it was– he will run in 2020, let’s say he wins. In 2024, he’s 81. I think the question is, does he run again? Right. We usually expect that Presidents will run for two terms. And I think a real long-term strategy is that Biden doesn’t run again 2024, but hands the baton to his VP pick. That means the Democrats could have a run at 12 years in the White House, right: four years with Biden and then eight years for the VP pick. So I think there’s going to also be a strong push for someone who can– can– is presidential ready at this moment, right, beyond the possibility that Biden might not serve out his four– four years in office due to his advanced age.

Who’s ready to be president in 2024 that he could pass the baton to? So I think that really also changes the calculation, because some women that might be on that list might not be presidential ready at this moment. They might just not have had an experience.

Prof. Sardo: So to put you on the spot, a little bit: if you had to guess as to who you think it is likely for Biden to select, not necessarily who you hope that Biden would select, but who do you think is– who are some of the likely candidates or who might be the most likely candidate for him to select?

Prof. Piscopo: Yeah. So if we think about everything I just said, which, you know, tilts heavily towards the Black woman, tilts heavily towards a Black woman with a lot of political experience, I would be fairly surprised if right now Kamala Harris wasn’t just– wasn’t number one on their list. You know, she– in addition, she’s a senator, she’s a former Attorney General of California, she had a career in law enforcement. So I think all of those make her very attractive for this political moment. And I think that gives her an edge over someone such as Stacey Abrams, another very politically talented Black woman, but who simply has less experience in office. And if the Biden team is thinking about this– this 12 year plan, right, that I think that tilts heavily towards Harris. I think some other names that have been mentioned that, I’m sure he’s vetting; there’s Val Demings, who’s a member of the House of Representatives from Florida. She’s also a Black woman and she’s the former Chief of the Orlando Police Department, which again in this political moment could be very attractive to the Biden team. But I think Harris has more, more of a national name. And so I would imagine that they’re looking at her very closely right now.

Prof. Sardo: So the kind of– the considerations of like, kind of long-term, who is ready to step in you think are going to outweigh considerations of like ideological balancing or geographic balancing. It’s not like California is really in play for the election, but you think that those more long-term things are going to weigh more heavily for the– for the selection?

Prof. Piscopo: Well, I know that the Biden team invited himself––I shouldn’t say “I know”, my– my educated– my educated observation is that the Bi––I don’t have an inside track to the Biden team––but my educated observation, right, particularly about Biden and his team is they really value experience, right. There was a strong technocratic bent in that in that campaign that’s often, you know, disappointing to the progressive wing of the party that might vote for some more radical change as opposed to some real wonky change, but I think that’s a really strong current in the campaign. And I think that tips them in favor of folks that have had a little bit more experience at the federal level of government, right, so folks like Harris, right.

You know I– I think that… I don’t see– other candidates, right, that I think were– were, perhaps really appealing to the Biden campaign and maybe before the current political moment where Black Lives Matter has such important national voice, right, would be a Latina candidate, right. So there’s Michelle Lujan Grisham from New Mexico, Latina governor, there was Catherine Masto, the junior Latina senator from Nevada. She withdrew her name from consideration.

So I think those might have been your women of color pics that would have maybe geographically balanced the ticket a little bit or maybe gone at some dubious blue states, a little bit. But I think in the current moment, right, the– the considerations might look a little bit different with the demographics that need– that need to be seen on– at the top of the ticket. 

Prof. Sardo: Moving away from electoral politics a little bit and thinking about responses to Covid-19 and the gendering of political responses there: there’s a decent amount of punditry that draws kind of gender distinctions between responses to the pandemic, comparing Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden with President Trump and Brazil’s Bolsonaro, are kind of saying that like, “Look, women are doing a much better job at this than men.” And you recently wrote a piece for El País the– engaging this question. So are women performing better in their responses to the pandemic than men, or is that the wrong question?

Prof. Piscopo: Right, so I think it’s clear from our conversation so far that I, you know am 1,000% in favor of having more women in office. Usually talk about having more women in office, there’s– there’s two arguments that get made, right. There’s the argument I gave to you earlier, which is the argument from the position of justice, right. This is simply unfair, right, this is a historically marginalized group, they’re not in positions of power because they’ve been historically marginalized. And so, for reasons of justice, we need to diversify who’s exercising their right to be elected.

The hard part, right, is that often these justice-based arguments don’t gain a lot of traction. And so people fall back onto these consequence-based arguments. So we hear a lot that that women are better political leaders than men, so you should want to elect women because they’re better political leaders than men. And– and to some extent, this is– this is true, right, the political science research shows us that women and women in the US Congress are more productive than men. They write more bills, they get more bills enacted, they attend more sessions, they deliver more pork to their constituents. But that’s not because women are naturally better, right, it’s often––again––because politics is a man’s world, women have to do more to show their place.

So we then think about covid, right, it’s easy to look at some of these patterns around covid and try to fall into this consequence-based argument, right. So, globally, Jacinda Arden in New Zealand, Angela Merkel in Germany: these are countries that have a lot of success fighting the coronavirus. So it’s like, “oh, women leaders are better,” right. I think the problem with that argument is 1) it doesn’t seem to empirically bear out, which is why I wanted to write about the governors in the United States for El País, right. If we look at governors in the US for Gretchen Whitmer, there’s Gavin Newsom in California, right, and what really has predicted when governors in the United States have taken early measures to stop spread across the virus isn’t gender. It’s party.

And I think that’s actually true at the international level as well, right, where countries have acted to halt the pandemic aggressively hasn’t just been countries led by women. It’s been countries that at this moment are wealthy democracies, stable democracies and, most critically, democracies with high levels of institutional trust; places where citizens trust their government and look to their government for guidance. So in some ways I think it’s the wrong question. 

And I also think it’s a– it’s a problematic question because if we keep insisting that women leaders are better, even if we’re doing that for good faith reasons like telling people it’s okay to vote for women, we perpetuate stereotypes and double standards, right. So I wrote in the piece, you know, high performing men like Gavin Newsom become seen as natural, while high performing women like Gretchen Whitmer are painted as so exceptional they become targets for misogynistic backlash and partisan rage. So I think we have to be really careful about these feel-good arguments because, you know, benevolent stereotypes about women in office are still stereotypes, right, and still require women to justify their place in office in ways that men are not required to do.

Prof. Sardo: So shifting away from politics, more generally, why did you decide to become a political scientist? What led you to this career pathway?

Prof. Piscopo: That’s a great– that’s a great question. Um, so, you know, I was always interested in in politics but unsurprisingly, right, it’s, it’s a story a bit about women. So I was thinking about this– this question and one of the key moments from you, right. So I was in– I was in high school in 1987 when Bill Clinton appointed Madeline Albright to be Secretary of State, and it’s– I try to explain to students, right, that how– how really earth-shattering that moment was for me as as a teenager, right. And she was the first woman to accede to a powerful post in the president’s cabinet, right. And that was– it was like, wow, right, like a woman can can do this, right. 

And I think about, you know, growing up. And so, you know, other than sort of Dana, Scully and the X Files, I mean neither in television nor in real life were there women with strong roles in politics or in science or technology, right, if– they just weren’t there. They weren’t in. So as I mentioned earlier, right: you can’t be what you can’t see. I also like to remind my students, right, it wasn’t until 1975 that married women could get credit cards in their own names without their husbands’ approval. So I think for me it was really about a better way to understand, like how power works and why, why does power exclude and when can power include and when can those who have power change, when– when does what they look like change? And what does that mean? And so those were really the questions that that shaped my interest and led me to study political science.

Prof. Sardo: And finally, my last question for you: do you have any advice––academic, life, political, otherwise––that you could give to current Oxy students?

Prof. Piscopo: Yeah, I think what we have lived in the United States the past few years is a real reminder––and, of course, I’m a political scientist, right––but a real reminder that elections matter. And sometimes I see, you know, a real anti-establishment or anti-institutional trend among students, you know, thinking that there’s no real difference between the two parties, right, they’re all the same, nothing ever changes, no matter– no matter who we elect. And so, you know, who wants to be part of– who wants to be part of parties, right, who wants to be part of elections, who wants to join these these groups?

But I think what we’re realizing is that actually elections really do matter, right. The landscape of people’s daily lives changed dramatically with the election of President Trump and not just now, but the moment he was elected, right, it changed the way Customs and Enforcement behaved in our communities towards people that were immigrants and there were real material changes that the people experienced in their lives.

And I think local elections also matter, right, so often we focus so much on what’s happening at the federal level, we forget about the local level. So things that we talked about, which states were able to move more quickly to protect their citizens from covid, which states or cities right now are able to make changes in policing that promote the safety of communities, right, all of those folks are elected. And so I think that there can definitely be a tendency to think, you know, that some institutions are so broken they’re not worth affiliating with at all. But I think we’re living in a moment where we realized that even if institutions are broken or even if institutions need improvement, who’s leading them still matters. And so I would say to students, you know, elections matter but not just vote, but run because actually, who is an office can make a difference for the health and wellbeing and safety of people every day. So, not to forget about that.

Prof. Sasrdo: Thank you so much. And is there any place that students can find out more about your research or– or about at some of the public writing that you’ve been doing that they can find that easily?

Prof. Piscopo: Yeah, so I have a website. So it’s my first name and last name dot com, so it’s and on the website I have a button called media and if you click on media, it’ll pull up all of my op eds and magazine articles that you can read and I also have a link to some of my research and, folks that are listening are– certainly happy to send me an email or find me on Twitter. I have a link on my website to my– my Twitter handle. So I’m out there in the world.

Prof. Sardo: And we’ll include a link to the website in the show notes. Thank you so much, Professor Piscopo, for taking time to speak with us.

Prof. Piscopo: Thanks, Professor Sardo.

Prof. Sardo: Take care. Stay safe, stay healthy and hopefully we’ll see you in the fall.

Prof. Piscopo: Okay, you too.


Prof. Sardo: The Oxy Poli-Cast is a production of the Politics Department of Occidental College. It is hosted, recorded, and edited by me, Professor Christopher Sardo. I am assisted by Junko Anderson, class of 2021. You can find more information about today’s guest, our department, and how to subscribe to our summer newsletter by checking out the show notes.