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.