Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Year of the Woman

In my last semester of my undergraduate program in 1992, I took a basic political science class, and wrote a paper on "1992: The Year of the Woman." 1992 earned its moniker when four women were elected to the United States Senate (two new to the senate; two reelected), who, when added to the existing two Senators already serving, brought the total number of female senators to six (five Democrats and one Republican).  SIX out of 100.  6% of Senate representation for roughly 50 percent of the population was lauded as "The Year of the Woman."  That was the world in which I was coming of age as a human being and a feminist.  I believed, as a woman in her 20s, that the pendulum was finally swinging our way, and in a few decades, opportunities for women would be radically different. I still remembered my confused dismay as a child at the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1979.  In 1992, I thought those kinds of roadblocks were clearing at last.

So it's been a few decades. The number of women in the U.S. Senate currently stands at 21 (notably, one of them is my stepmother); the House of Representatives has a similar percentage of women.  Progress has been made, but 25 years distant from my young self, what I assumed would happen in my lifetime - equal representation - feels increasingly remote, a fading wisp of smoke from a pipe dream.

Other countries boast better numbers.  Canada (my current address) does, but not spectacularly.  On the IPU's Women in Parliament list, Canada is #62 with 26.3% lower house (House of Commons) representation, and 43% in the (appointed, not elected) Senate. The U.S. squeaks into the top 100 coming in at #98 with 19.4% representation in the House of Representatives (http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm).

The top of the list, Rwanda, came as a surprise to me. In early 1990s, before the genocide of 1994, the percentage of parliamentary representation of women in Rwanda was under 15%.  As a consequence of the violence, when a million people, primarily men, were killed in a space of months and others fled the area, of the remaining population, 70% were women.  Women stepped into the open roles, and in 2003, the government passed quotas that led to the rapid changes.  (See article from 2014 here for details: http://harvardkennedyschoolreview.com/rwanda-strides-towards-gender-equality-in-government/). Rwanda is now one of only two countries whose representation is more than 50% women.

All is not rainbows in Rwanda.  There are suggestions that changes in term limits enacted in 2015 that allows President Kagame to be reelected and serve until 2035 mean that the government has cemented a devolution into a one party system (an example of one of many reasons I favor terms limits at the executive and congressional level).  Ironically, the anti-genocide laws of Rwanda are now being used as a means of squashing free speech and dissent.  (http://www.newsweek.com/2017/07/21/kagame-presidency-stability-rwanda-elections-635018.html)

To state the patently obvious: No one sane with any moral center views genocide as a preferred path for change.  No one wants a one party system (except the dictators and power-brokers themselves).  There's ample evidence worldwide throughout history that even the most warm and fuzzy, benevolent dictators seldom stay benevolent when their power is threatened.

My point in bringing up Rwanda is that all the talk about how change necessarily has to be glacially slow, and how everyone should be patient, endlessly, as we wait for the old guard of powerful men to get around to letting us gals into the clubhouse in equal numbers is, well, bullshit.  If we as a country, women and men, really wanted women to have equal voice in government, then we would make it a priority. Are quotas the way to do this, and if so, what kind?  I don't know.  Some 128 countries have some sort of quota for women in government though, so it's clearly not as outrageous an idea as some might have you think. (http://www.quotaproject.org/country.cfm?SortOrder=LastLowerPercenta).  I do believe that more rapid change can happen if we decide we want it.

For hundreds of years, men of the United States have wielded a stranglehold of power over the women of the United States, and I'm tired of it. You want to shriek about the unfairness of quotas, at the possibility of the best qualified person not getting the job, get back to me once there has been hundreds of years of equal representation and a true equality is the norm, not just a speaking point. Because I can tell you right now, the best qualified women are often not getting the nominations or the interviews, much less the job because there aren't quotas, because ingrained, institutional sexism limits them - they don't "look the part" in the minds of so many hiring managers, boardrooms and voters and politicos. If we reserve a specific space for the voice of women in government, we open a counterpoint to the many other places of power where men's voices predominate.  From the tiny percentage of women in CEO roles (http://fortune.com/2017/06/07/fortune-women-ceos/) to the pay disparities, it takes little time to note the continuation of sexism, and sometimes outright misogyny.

In 1992, I was young and naive, and I thought the better parts of humanity would prevail, that fairness would naturally lend itself to a better balance.  I thought I would see a better country a short time ahead.  In 2017, older, and much, much angrier, I realize change happens when we enact it.  Civil Rights did not wait for all the segregationists to decide they were done with Jim Crow;  people of conscience stood and protested and fought, started a national conversation; when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, it ended the segregationists' party early.  Racism did not magically end then, and is experiencing a dank and vocal resurgence now thanks to the new U.S. president. The end of the legally-enforced conditions of separation opened space for a contact that could more easily challenge racist assumptions, providing a social contact context for change.  The more varied the faces and voices at the table, the more the next generation can see themselves in those roles.  Elected representatives who are women and/or people of color and/or other minority groups should not be exotic novelties, but instead exist in numbers that reflect the diversity of our society.  In short, representatives should be representative. 

At 48 years old, I now spend time walking around a college campus with regularity since I am attending graduate school.  It is my hope that in 25 years, when this crop of college seniors are my current age they see in the United States a country that welcomes voices from every quarter, where representation reflects truly equal opportunity. My fear is that I'm just as naive in hoping for that kind of change as I was in 1992.

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