Margaret Thatcher, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann: Whenever you suggest that more women leaders would be a good thing for women, someone is sure to wheel out these ladies in rebuttal. Point taken: Electing reactionary antifeminist women will not improve life for other women. It may not even improve life for other women politicians: In her 11 years as prime minister, Thatcher had only one woman in her cabinet. It may be true that any woman who wields electoral power dents the stereotype of women as incompetent, weak, and hormone-ruled. Say what you will about Thatcher, she put an end to that nonsense. Still, it’s safe to assume that few feminists would vote for her—or Palin or Bachmann—in order to reap this vague psychological benefit.
Nonetheless, when feminists argue that we need more women in government, both women and men—including feminists who have chosen a male candidate—deride them as “vagina voters” practicing “identity politics.” For reasons I don’t fully understand, only stone racists mock people of color who support candidates of their own ethnicity. Obama wouldn’t have won without overwhelming black support; indeed, the large majority of African Americans in Congress represent mostly black districts, many of them created specifically to achieve that result. It’ll be a long time before we see white progressives arguing that the underrepresentation of people of color at every level of government isn’t important because white progressives have better politics—and anyway, what about Marion Barry?
There are, it would seem, no penis voters, no identity politics for men. As Sanders put it: “No one has ever heard me say, ‘Hey, guys, let’s stand together—vote for a man.’ I would never do that, never have.” Oh, Bernie, Bernie, Bernie. I’ll work my heart out for you if you win the nomination, but let’s be serious: When the whole system has been set up by men for men since the founding of the Republic, and when men are still 81 percent of Congress, 75 percent of state legislatures, 88 percent of governorships, and 100 percent of US presidents over the past 230 years, there is no need to mention your unmentionables.
More women in government benefits women. Is that such a wild thing to say? It’s not a tidy one-to-one calculation. Rwanda boasts the world’s best representation of women, with 58 percent, but President Paul Kagame runs the show. Mexico, in seventh place, tops all of the Scandinavian countries but Sweden (where women are 44 percent of Parliament). Afghanistan (27 percent) beats the United States (just 19 percent), although few of those Afghan women have real power. But if you look only at the stable democracies, there’s a rough pattern: Women legislators tend to be clustered in the more progressive parties and to promote “women’s issues”—health, education, childcare, fighting discrimination and violence against women—more than male legislators do. Without the women of Congress (including Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith), sex discrimination wouldn’t have been included in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Shirley Chisholm pushed for the creation of WIC. Barbara Mikulski fought for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Kirsten Gillibrand took on sexual assault in the military.
Women should have 50 percent of power in every area of life, if not more (reparations!). It’s simple justice. As I’ve written in previous columns, I believe that electing Hillary Clinton would promote that goal, but let’s say you agree with my colleagues Liza Featherstone and Sarah Leonard and think Bernie would do a better job for women. It’s certainly arguable. So what’s your plan for gender equality in government? Left to its own devices, the system moves at a glacial pace: At the rate we’re going, we won’t achieve parity until the glaciers have all melted. Simply vowing to do better won’t work—that’s what people always say, and what they may even think they’re doing. It’s just that in every actual case, the best candidate, strangely, happens to be a man.
Hillary supporters are mocked for emphasizing the question of women’s representation in government. I agree that it’s not the only thing at stake: Winning the White House also matters. But I’m assuming that Bernie supporters believe in gender fairness and equality, just as I do, so apart from expressing their longing to vote for Elizabeth Warren (who isn’t running), how do they think we should get to 50/50? How about a system in which the Democrats nominate only women to fill open seats for the next 20 years, and governors nominate only women to fill vacancies? They could do something similar with race: There are only two black senators now in office, and only nine have served in all of our sorry history. (Demographically, there should be 13 or more. Reparations!)
If that’s too extreme, we could take a page from Ireland. Long a boys’ club, with two entrenched major parties that differed little politically, until last week Ireland had one of the lowest percentages of women in Parliament among European countries: 15 percent. In 2011, though, it set up a system in which, to receive public campaign funds, each party had to put forward a slate of candidates that was at least 30 percent female. That meant finding women—lots of women—who’d been overlooked and sidelined in favor of men, and making sure they had the wherewithal for successful campaigns. The result? Women now comprise 22 percent of the Irish Parliament, despite the heavy losses among incumbents as voters expressed their rage at austerity and broken promises. The quotas also energized women as voters and activists for abortion rights, gender equality, and support for women and children.
True, Ireland has a complicated system of proportional voting, which helped. And it’s hard to imagine Americans accepting such a quota because, as Sanders pointed out, we want to believe so strongly in desexualized and deracialized individual merit. Still, as long as he’s trying to turn the United States into Denmark, why not turn it a little bit Irish too? What say you, Bernie brothers and sisters?