We are, to state the obvious, in a time of great political upheaval and discontent. People are pissed off, and for good reason. There's an entire laundry list of public and private sector misbehavior and in large part, we've yet to have a reckoning for this malfeasance. Many of us voted to move the country in a new, post-Bush direction only to find ourselves still neck-deep in a good number of those really bad policies. And after this week's contrived debt ceiling Tea Party hostage situation, I get the sense that we've not yet begun to see the bottom of this pit.
These are serious and complex times. In the news, we generally see a bunch of older, white guys running around making it worse. This view is not entirely without merit. By and large, a bunch of stupid and selfish decisions are being made by white, male policymakers who for a myriad of reasons are taking us down this road. But I don't think they're doing it because they're white. Nor because they're male. Women policymakers are doing it too. So are nonwhite policymakers. The reasons, in fact, are much more involved than race and gender.
Which is why in my admittedly policy-oriented view, I find myself exceptionally irritated at the ever-bubbling discussion around gender in politics.
This is not to question the concept that having more women making policy, as a general rule, is a good thing. On the contrary there are many exceptional women who have done and continue to do great work in this arena. But these intelligent and accomplished people are good at their work because of what they've experienced and achieved as individuals. Gender is not, in my experience, a top tier factor in the calculus of what makes them superior candidates and policymakers.
The main argument I've heard in the call for "more women" in office has to do with idea that women bring different life experience to the table. There's no doubt that having a baby and motherhood are a uniquely feminine experience. But does this mean that only women take these experiences seriously to the point of creating and implementing policy that enhances them? Or that women are more effective at it than men?
I don't think so. In fact, one of the best policymakers on issues traditionally considered to be championed by women is Senator Jeff Merkley. For example, Merkley took the lead on laws giving working mothers unpaid time and clean space to express breast milk while on the job. This kind of legislation isn't high profile and it doesn't get Senator Merkley a big slot on the nightly news. He does it because it's needed and it's the right thing to do. There have been women in the US Senate since 1922. Yet it took a man to get this key provision for women into law.
And then there's Emerge Oregon, the organization working to inject more women into the political and policy bloodstream. Emerge is championed by both men and women from around the state. A perusal of that list shows some of the smartest and most articulate progressives in Oregon--and the list is full of men. In fact, I know several men on that list who have been directly responsible for helping women get into office. If that issue matters to you, I suggest you research the men on this list and support them in their endeavors. They rock.
Another point I've heard is that "all other things being equal, progressives should support women over men" as candidates. That's a nice saying, but as far I've seen--things are rarely, if ever, equal. Candidates have different levels and types of experience. There's an inherent "not equal" in that equation. We should decide which policy and leadership characteristics matter to us in our candidates and support accordingly. Most all of the women candidates I've been watching of late: Eileen Brady, Suzanne Bonamici, Mary Nolan, Amanda Fritz, Shemia Fagan and Dr. Sharon Meieran are all wonderful, brilliant women who deserve to be considered on their merits. It would be insulting to them and to their work to put the fact that they're women above virtually everything else in their vast portfolios.
It seems to me if what puts you over the top in that decision is whether or not the person has a penis or a vagina, you're doing it wrong.
For me, one of the most telling pieces of evidence that we're moving forward in normalizing women in politics is when Mary Nolan announced that she is challenging Amanda Fritz for Portland City Council. Two strong, smart, progressive women get to run against one another and based on their INDIVIDUAL experience and policy stances, Portland gets to decide who is the best for the job. There's such an epic amount of awesomeness in this--because it's NOT about their gender.
I could go on, but here's the point: good policy and politics comes from the INDIVIDUALS. It's not about their plumbing. Highlighting gender as a reason to seriously consider a candidate, especially to the point of weighing it over their experience as a leader or policymaker is, in my view, completely counterproductive. Women in high profile political roles should be normalized and this can't and won't be accomplished if we emphasize gender in this way.
We've got some big stuff to tackle in our state and around the nation. Let's elect these folks based on the content of their leadership, policy and ideas portfolios, not their plumbing.