On Women’s Equality Day, Congress far from Equal
Today, August 26, is Women's Equality Day. The date commemorates the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920, granting women the right to vote, and has been proclaimed by the President and Congress each year since 1971.
Surely women have made important and substantial gains in the forty years since Women’s Equality Day was first celebrated. But while the strides have been significant, they are in no way sufficient. Today, women hold nearly 17% of seats in Congress, 22% of statewide elected offices, and over 24% of state legislature seats nationwide— though paltry, a number nearly double the amount of seats held in 1971. Since the first Congress, 11,699 people have served in the House or Senate, but of these 215— less than 2%-- have been women. It is clear that women’s voices are missing from our nation’s important debates and decisions, but nowhere was that loss been felt more acutely than in the 112th Congress’s battle royale: the debt debacle.
All eyes were focused on Washington during this summer’s debt ceiling debate and it was easy to see that the cast of characters was mainly single-sex. Women’s voices were not just excluded from the table in these debt negotiations—they weren’t even in the room, as chief negotiations with the Gang of Six functioned as a boys only club. Women— including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi—were also left out of final budget negotiations in April, when the White House gathered with high-level staffers for House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Despite the mantra that “everything has to be on the table” it’s been clear that not everyone will have a seat at it.
Though so-called “entitlement” programs were spared in the first phase of cuts, in the next few months, the 12-person Debt Reduction Committee will make critical decisions to cut an additional $1.5 trillion from the federal budget. Of the 90 women Members of Congress were eligible to serve on the “super committee,” only one woman was appointed, constituting an appalling 8% of the committee as a whole. These numbers are particularly troubling given that many of the services that have the biggest impacts on women and families, like Medicaid, Medicare, child care, education, food assistance, and Social Security, are at stake. When women aren’t at the table, the programs that disproportionately benefit and employ them are often the first to go.
When you’ve spent the summer watching old, white men allow the global economy to teeter on the brink of collapse, it’s not hard to wonder “what the hell is wrong with you?” but also, “would women have done this?”
Studies have shown that women legislate differently than men, often acting more collaboratively, seeking out long-term results, and tending to take fewer risks. If current events aren’t evidence enough, research has proven that when women are at the decision-making table, processes are less contentious, outcomes are fairer, and a broader range of opinions is heard. Women legislators often take leadership on issues important to families and communities, such as health, education, and the environment. Social psychologists have documented groups that are predominately male are more willing to take imprudent risks that jeopardize its long-term stability and growth. Additionally, a recent Harvard study found that when groups include more women, the collective IQ of the team rises.
Women are more than half of the population. We have more than half of the good ideas. So why aren’t women making at least half of the decisions? It’s true that women don't speak with one voice; we hold a variety of views on everything from getting more money to spending it. However, all issues are women's issues- foreign policy, the economy, military spending, agriculture, trade and transportation, as well as health, education, and social services. Our democracy would be strengthened by including women’s voices in the all of these decision-making processes.
In the Joint Resolution of Congress that designating each August 26 as Women’s Equality Day it states: “the women of the United States have been treated as second-class citizens and have not been entitled the full rights and privileges, public or private, legal or institutional…and have united to assure that these rights and privileges are available to all citizens equally regardless of sex.” As the debt negotiations have shown, though united we may be, equal we are not. Ultimately, if Congress was serious about engaging women in the budget-cutting process, their super committee would look more like those who are bearing the brunt of the cuts—or at least more like our nation as a whole. The life experiences of all women—however varied—would bring different and valuable perspectives into congressional debate and must be present for progress to be made.