This week, South Korea's newly–elected first female president, Park Geun–hye, will visit Washington, meeting with President Obama and addressing Congress. Facing increasing belligerence from North Korea, Park's leadership will be essential to handling the challenges she has inherited upon assuming office. It is quite appropriate that Park has become known as South Korea's "Iron Lady," as she counts Margaret Thatcher as her favorite leader and ran on a conservative platform of pro–market policies.
Last month's passing of Thatcher, the original "Iron Lady", conservative icon and the historic first female prime minister of the United Kingdom, was a moment for the world to pause and reflect on her remarkable legacy. Overcoming enormous social and cultural obstacles, Thatcher broke boundaries for her gender and provided proof of the power of conservative ideas during difficult times.
For some of us in the United States – particularly young conservatives – her passing also raised the question, "where is our Thatcher?"
Today, conservative women are leading nations and running governments around the world. Despite the oft–peddled myth that women are naturally at home in liberalism, women from Park Geun–hye to Angela Merkel are leading and strengthening center–right governments in their countries.
But female leaders are rarely made overnight; Thatcher spent more than a decade as a Member of Parliament before ascending to cabinet minister, leader of the opposition and ultimately prime minister. Angela Merkel was first elected to the German Bundestag in 1990 and it was fifteen years later that she became Chancellor. Even Park, who is the daughter of a former South Korean President, started her political career as an elected assemblyman in 1998.
Yet America's poor record when it comes to elevating women to higher office – regardless of party – is no secret. Over a decade has passed since "Nine and Counting: The Women of the Senate" was published, chronicling the experiences of female Senators, and despite breaking records in 2012, female membership in the Senate still sits at only twenty, and women hold only 17.9 percent of seats in the House of Representatives. There are only five sitting female governors. Progress is happening, but it is slow.
Finding America's own "Iron Lady" requires making an investment in young female conservative leadership starting today. Yes, it is important to shine the spotlight on women on the right who are doing great things; after all, of the five female governors, four of them are Republican, including rising stars like Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico. But further down the ballot, it is critical for the right to build its bench of talented leaders.
The Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University has some tough news for those of us championing female leadership on the right. Take elections for the House of Representatives, for example. Yes, Democrats tend to have more female candidates running for the House than do Republicans. But after the primary process, the gulf widens deeply.
While over 60 percent of Democratic women candidates for Congress made it past their party's primary in 2012, only 44 percent of Republican women candidates made it to the general election. In 2010, a year heralded as a banner year for Republican women in Congress, the data were even more troubling, with only 37 percent of female candidates winning their Republican primaries. (In contrast, 68 percent of Democratic women won their primaries that year.)
Overwhelmingly, programs aimed at training and funding female candidates to run come with restrictions, usually only supporting candidates who are pro–choice. While groups like the Young Guns and the Republican State Leadership Committee are stepping up to offer support to emerging female leaders down the ballot, the data still show the tough odds facing Republican women who pursue public office.
If America is to find her own "Iron Lady," it doesn't just start with getting young conservative women to run for office, it also means giving them the support to make it all the way to the ballot in November.
When Park Geun–hye speaks to Congress on Wednesday, there will likely be a clear message about strength and the importance of preserving freedom. But another message, likely unspoken but also unmistakable, may be delivered as well: that intelligent, strong, conservative female leadership is on display worldwide and is more critical than ever for addressing the serious challenges our nation and world face.
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