The march to political parity takes persistence and winners who pay back.
By Diane Vacca, cross-posted at On The Issues Magazine
"How do women achieve true parity in political representation?" The question is simultaneously simple and impossibly complex, perhaps triply so, when you add progressive feminism to the mix.
What do we want from our politics? Given the relatively pathetic female percentages that Americans see among elected officials, from Congress to state legislatures, how can we insist not just on equal numbers, but also on representation that powers our overall goals as progressive thinkers? Such a demand may seem impossibly naïve after even the charismatic and brilliant politician elected president in 2008 was unable to change the toxic ways of Washington.
But that demand feels more essential than ever, given the determination of the evangelists and the hard right to drag the rest of the country back to medieval chastity belts, Victorian debtor's jails and Cold War-era McCarthy-style accusations and inquisitions. We need seats at the table where policy is made. "If you're going to change things," U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg told The New York Times in 2009, "you have to be with the people who hold the levers." This from someone who has fought all her life for justice, and who, years before she was appointed to the bench, founded the Women's Rights Law Reporter and ran the ACLU Women's Rights Law Project.
What's stopping us?
The problem remains: how do we get close to parity so that more of us pull those levers of power and make real change? It seems that there's more than a glass ceiling -- there are multiple invisible barriers, seemingly of far stronger stuff than mere glass. Some are hoisted by outside forces -- employers, families and power brokers in Washington and Madison Avenue. Others are internal, persuading individual women that the pursuit of political clout is either impossible or not worth it.
It's easy to say that the latter is untrue. One simple example from Ginsburg's career at the Supreme Court illuminates the materially different outcomes that women's input can bring: In 2010, in Safford Unified School District v. Redding the male justices were prepared to rule against a 13-year-old girl who had been strip-searched at school. Then Ginsburg spoke knowingly about the humiliation and embarrassment an adolescent girl would experience -- and convinced the men that forcing a young girl to undress in public is an unreasonable search and, as such, unconstitutional. And Ginsburg has said repeatedly that without the women's movement in which she was a leader, change is impossible.
Outside the rarefied level of the Supreme Court, you can look to corporate America, where numerous studies have shown that corporations with women executives and board members perform better. Nonetheless, according to research conducted by American University's Jennifer Lawless, women are less likely than men to view themselves as qualified. "Men look at themselves, and even if they think they can't do it, they still do it," Lawless told the National Journal recently. "Women hold themselves up to a hypothetical bar that no one could ever reach."
On top of that is the double standard on self-promotion. "Women face a double bind. They're penalized socially for behaving in ways that might be perceived as immodest, and they're penalized professionally for behaving in ways that aren't self-promoting," says psychologist Marie-Helene Budworth, adding, "That's an unfortunate reality, because self-promotion is key to getting ahead."