Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Winning Without the War on Women

The euphoric post-election story goes something like this – women rocked the vote, both as voters and as candidates. There are now 20 women in the U.S. Senate – a historic number. Our very own Massachusetts elected its first woman to the Senate. New Hampshire became the first state to have an all-female Congressional delegation and a female governor.

As we celebrate this historic moment, however, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that women are on some kind of irreversible trajectory to reaching political parity. The current advances are a product of targeted efforts by political parties. Unless female politicians and aspiring candidates want to remain dependent on the salience of ‘rape’ and ‘abortions’ in the next election cycle, they must use this moment to push beyond the so-called “women’s issues.”

It is tempting to say that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee recruited record numbers of female candidates simply because its chair, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), is a women’s champion. She is, of course, but she is also an astute political operator, as is her counterpart at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY), who recruited a record number of female candidates for the House. Political parties are not altruistic actors.

Parties can play a major role in bringing about gender parity, but the goal of party establishments is to win a majority. Parties do not recruit a certain type of candidate because it would build a more representative Congress. Parties recruit candidates who can win. It is not difficult to surmise that in the context of a “Republican war on women,” the best Democratic candidates would be women.   

The success of Democratic recruitment efforts is evident. Of the 20 women in the Senate, 16 are Democrats and 4 are Republicans. The House, with 58 Democratic and 20 Republican women, beats previous records, and white men are no longer the majority of the House Democratic Caucus. Clearly, when parties decide to recruit and elect women, they are able to do so.   

So what happens in the next election when there is no more “war on women”? The political establishment will search for candidates who can win on whatever issue dominates the discourse. If women want to be in the game, then they have to use the current wave to assert their leadership and demonstrate the value of a female perspective on all issues.

Yes, it is unfair – men as a group are never required to prove their fitness to govern – but if any group of women could change the game, it is the newly elected class. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), has big banks shaking in their boots. Wall Street lobbyists are working overtime to prevent her from getting on the Senate banking committee, and she has not even been sworn in yet. Enemies foreign and domestic should be likewise terrified of Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) and Tammy Duckworth (D-IL). Both have served in combat with distinction, and Duckworth has the prosthetic legs and the Purple Star to show for it.

These are just a few examples. Let’s hope that the women in Congress can show their parties, their constituents and the country that they are not to be confined to a narrow set of issues. Until this happens, progress toward parity will remain slow, uneven and reactionary.

For more information:

Center for American Women and Politics, Election Watch Fact Sheet
The Telegraph, "US Election: Here come the girls as women make historic gains"
Anya Malkov is an MPP candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School, a WAPPP Cultural Bridge Fellow, and an alumna of From Harvard Square to the Oval Office.

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