California Forum

There is a reason not to celebrate the record number of women in Congress

Elise Stefanik celebrates her win in New York’s 21st Congressional District on election night in Glens Falls, N.Y.
Elise Stefanik celebrates her win in New York’s 21st Congressional District on election night in Glens Falls, N.Y. The Associated Press

For the first time in United States history, women have hit the triple digits in Congress. There are now 100 female members of Congress. Excuse me while I pass on the celebrations. This is, in a word, pathetic. In two words, it is utterly pathetic.

There are 535 federal legislators, including 100 senators and 435 members of the House of Representatives. Congratulations America; 19 percent of our federal lawmakers are women. Yet women make up slightly more than 50 percent of the U.S. population. This hardly makes for representatives that actually represent us.

To the extent that you think we should just be happy that women are making gains, small as they may be, please consider what your reaction would be if one in five members of Congress were a man, and why that would feel like an enormous paradigm shift.

It is important to determine why, in 2014, it is a milestone that one in five members of Congress is a woman. First, is the problem that there are not enough female voters? Second, do female voters tend to vote for men? Third, is the issue that women are not running for office? Finally, is there really a problem? Why is it important to have more female elected officials?

Are women showing up to the polls? Yes. Women vote more often than men. But whom do women vote for? Women generally vote for men because men are typically the ones who make it to the ballot. What about when a man and a woman both appear on the ballot? Then the answer is a bit more complicated. Women do not automatically vote for other women. Like any other voter, women evaluate a number of factors, including a candidate’s party affiliation, policy positions, and let’s be honest, likeability.

While more women vote than men, too often their choices are either only men, or men and a few women who may or may not be viewed as viable contenders. The dearth of viable female candidates can likely be attributed to a number of factors.

First, running for office is often neither a feasible nor desirable option for many women. It is still true that care for family members (including children and older family members) falls disproportionately on women. It is still true that women perform more household work than men. It is still true that when not caring for family members, or doing household work, often women make less money than men do in the workforce.

All of these factors contribute to a reluctance among many women to undertake a run for political office, which is a grueling ordeal in which candidates must spend significant amounts of time away from the home, meeting voters and, perhaps most important, fundraising.

This brings me to the second major reason I believe there are too few competitive female candidates. In American politics, fundraising is a proxy for viability. Candidates must prove their feasibility via their ability to appeal to the so-called donor class. But here again women face challenges that men do not. Women tend not to have the same networks of financial support as men. Groups like Emily’s List and the Barbara Lee Political Office recognize this and identify potential female candidates and help them to fundraise. But there is still a steep hill to climb. An ideal reform would be to limit the influence of money in politics so that we can focus on a candidate’s positions, and not her fundraising prowess, but any effective law is unlikely to be upheld under our current Supreme Court.

This next point too often goes without saying, but why is it important to have more women in office? Plenty of studies show that women tend to be more adept at building consensus and finding ways to compromise than their male counterparts. Women are, generally, better at avoiding gridlock and conflict, two things that plague every city hall, county seat and state capitol across the country, not to mention the nation’s capitol. But it is also important that our representatives have a diversity of experiences. Being a woman is, to state the obvious, a different experience from being a man. Women navigate the world in a myriad of different ways from men.

When talking about immigration reform, it is helpful to hear from people who have immigrated to this country, legally or not. When talking about the criminal justice system, it is helpful to talk to prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, victims and defendants. When talking about health care, it is important to hear from people who use it and need it. When talking about equal pay, it is helpful to hear from people who have been denied it.

Maybe when we have a diversity of viewpoints at the table, we will begin to realize that there are no “women’s issues,” there are simply “issues.” Education, childcare, elder care, health care and domestic violence are all thought of as women’s issues. But they shouldn’t be. These are issues of basic human rights and dignities that often most deeply affect women, but shouldn’t be viewed as simply a woman’s concern. We likely need women to help correct this erroneous narrative.

This is no time to celebrate. It is time for us to think about how to elect representatives who truly represent us. When our elected officials possess a greater diversity of viewpoints and experiences, we will not only obtain better answers, but we will know which questions we should be asking in the first place.

Jessica A. Levinson is a professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, and is vice president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission. She blogs at PoLawTics.lls.edu and tweets at @LevinsonJessica.

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