The 2010 midterms were depressing for many reasons. One of them was that the number of women in Congress decreased by one, the first drop in 30 years. There’s a chance to reverse that trend in the 2012 elections, however. Jennifer Steinhauer reports in the New York Times that there is “the greatest number of female incumbents ever up for re-election in the Senate, and would be among the highest number of nominees ever, which could add up to a banner year for women.” That is, if they actually get elected – which could be difficult if the Democrats suffer and women get dragged down with them. It’s yet to be seen if 2012 could be the “year of the woman” many had predicted 2010 would be.
But why should we care? Why is it so important to have more women politicians shaping the course of the country? The answers given to these questions vary, and some end up being very problematic. Rather than pointing out that women bring more diversity of experience and give girls someone to look up to, many fall back on essentialist claims about our inherent nature.
Take Sen. Claire McCaskill. Amanda Terkel reports at the Huffington Post that she explains it this way: “I think we are, by our nature, nurturers and negotiators. We want people to get along, we want to find a solution, we want to move forward. I think sometimes there is a tendency to like the fight for the fight’s sake every once in awhile with some of the guys. So I think having more women involved will help.” In other words, the reason we should have more heels clacking through the halls of Congress is because we’re all motherly and don’t like it when people fight.
Her sentiments are echoed elsewhere in Terkel’s article. My own Senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, puts it this way: “When women are part of the negotiation and are part of decision-making, the outcomes are just better… I think if there were more women at the decision-making table, we would get more things done.” Which is a vague way of saying that there is something about women that makes negotiations smoother and leads to better decisions.
The argument that women should be more involved in the political process because of inherently good qualities is quite old. It hearkens back to at least the early suffrage era. When fighting for the right to vote, many women activists fell back on arguments that women are more moral and religious. Frances Willard, president of the pro-suffrage and pro-prohibition organization the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, argued that women needed to vote so they could act as “citizen-mothers” and protect their homes – and the country – from evil. H.G. Cattell, a California city council member at the time, argued thus in favor of women’s right to vote: “Women are better morally, as evidence by the criminals in the penitentiaries… We must, therefore, admit that women would be a great factor in promoting honesty, equity and morality if given the ballot.” And a widely used suffrage poster said it this way: “Women are by nature and training housekeepers. Let them help in the city housekeeping. They will introduce an occasional spring cleaning.”
It’s easy to balk at the way these women talked about the right to vote, but the idea that women are more nurturing, more moral, and naturally motherly is still very much with us. It’s the wrong tactic. These arguments boil women down to supposedly inborn traits, but we’re far more complex than all that. What of women who are aggressive? Who don’t always play by the rules? Who choose not to have children? Arguing for our inclusion based on our supposed traits will hurt us in the long-run when it’s exposed that we’re not all paragons of morality or looking to be everyone’s mother.
So is there no good argument for getting more women into Congress? One of the biggest reasons to support more women – and more of every marginalized group, enhancing diversity overall – is to get more life experiences into Congress, therefore making it more representative of the general population that it is supposed to represent. One anecdote in Terkel’s article gets to the heart of this: Sen. Jon Kyl argued during a Senate Finance Committee on health care reform in 2009, “I don’t need maternity care, and so requiring that to be in my insurance policy is something that I don’t need and will make the policy more expensive.” Sen. Debbie Stabenow retorted, “I think your mom probably did,” undermining his argument, and Kyl eventually lost out. She later told Terkel, “I don’t know what it would have been like if I had not been in that meeting. This was just a snapshot of the differences in perspectives and the importance of having women at the table.” She’s absolutely right. Without women at every level of government, it’s far less likely that our concerns will make it into the conversation. We won’t be there to stand up for them.
There’s also the rising tide effect of having visible women leaders. As Rep. Tammy Baldwin put it, “The symbolic impact of being able to look at a woman senator, a woman secretary of state, a woman as a CEO of a company — as well as seeing women in all parts of society — sends the message that you can be anything you want to be, and there’s nothing holding you back.” It’s important for women to be able to reach for any career goal they want. It’s much easier for them to do it when they see others have come before.
It may seem politically expedient to say women are different than men and therefore we need more of them in politics. It appeals to deep-seated stereotypes about gender roles and has an air of biology backing it up. But these claims simply aren’t true. There are other, much more important, reasons to see that more women run and win. We just have to highlight them.