California Forum

In the spotlight: What do we look for in women’s political representation?

There’s something I need to get off my chest. It’s been weighing on me, and I want to come clean before the next election cycle: I didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primary. That fact is only controversial because I’m a women’s advocate by trade, and there are certain feminist circles in which anything less than full-throated Hillary support is tantamount to heresy.

But 2008 Hillary just wasn’t the candidate for me. I didn’t like the hack Democratic Party operatives she had in her inner circle – strategist Mark Penn and fundraiser-turned-Virginia-governor Terry McAuliffe come to mind – and I didn’t like her hawkishness on Iraq. Most of all, I couldn’t stomach the Clinton-style “neo-liberalism,” she and her husband unleashed in the ’90s, which in my opinion has done more ideological damage to Democrats than anything since Reaganomics.

I bring this up because Hillary made a high-profile visit to California recently, setting off a fresh wave of speculation about her still-hypothetical presidential candidacy. In pondering what it would take for me to support her in 2016, I started thinking about what we mean when we talk about women’s political representation. Is it enough just to have women at the table – do they change politics simply by participating? Or does true representation mean that elected officials must think and talk specifically about how legislation affects women as a demographic group?

Sandra Fluke is an example of how women can change a political conversation just by showing up. When she was turned away from testifying at a 2012 congressional hearing on the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate, it suddenly shone the spotlight on who was and was not allowed to participate in the hearing. Notably, no women were permitted to testify in favor of the mandate, but the committee later allowed female speakers to testify against it.

Fluke eventually spoke before a group of congressional Democrats, but by then the conversation had shifted from the mandate to the lack of female participation in proceedings that so intimately concerned them. Fluke, now a Los Angeles-based lawyer, continues to work for women’s rights and this year joined the board of Emerge California. Emerge coaches women to run for political office, so political representation is still high on her agenda.

When I asked why the issue was so important to her, she said it was in large part a matter of proportion.

“I push to have all members of our society – women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, everyone – proportionally represented in our government’s decision-making,” she said. “That’s what a democracy should look like, and right now with only 26 percent of the California Legislature made up of women ... ours is much too far from that.”

Fluke addressed the conundrum at the core of my ’08 decision, which is whether electing people from marginalized groups means those officials will necessarily go on to represent that group’s interests. Like me, she doesn’t think electing individuals is the best route to creating policy change, saying that it’s each politician’s responsibility to craft fair legislation. Still, it often seems that policymakers address matters of gender and race only when they’re literally right in front of their faces, so getting everyone a seat at the table might be the best way to ensure those issues aren’t sidestepped.

Given these complexities, what would a Hillary candidacy, or a President Hillary, actually mean for American women? Fluke said our first woman president would have a symbolic and historical value that transcends policy: “It will be a bold declaration of the accomplishments of women in this country, and of our national belief in equality.”

Notwithstanding my ’08 primary vote, I’m as eager as the next feminist for the United States to break its 237-year losing streak and finally elect a female head of state. I’d love to be on board with a Candidate Clinton, but there are only so many policy differences I’m willing to overlook to get a woman into the White House.

If Hillary runs in 2016 I’ll ask the same questions of her that I’d ask of any primary candidate, about domestic budgetary issues, the role of central government and America’s place on the world stage. My hope is that her stint at the State Department has tempered her hawkishness and given her new insights into the global economy. But if she runs on her husband’s economic legacy, or isn’t interested in curbing our nation’s imperialist tendencies, I’ll continue to be skeptical. Her gender really won’t have much to do with it.