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Iowa Caucus: What's in it for Women?

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The U.S. ranks 40th in the world for women's political empowerment and we're losing ground.

Fortieth. This ranking, based on 2010 data, is a comparative measure of the gap between men and women in political decision-making at the highest levels. (Here is the entire report.) Not 1st. Not 12th. Not 19th. Not 32nd. And, that's the overall number. Guess what it is for parliamentary representation -- legislatures, state and national?

It's 72nd. Forget having a female head of state. Just considering that in 2011 women lost ground, when our representation in Congress fell for the first time in 30 years, this number can only go down. This is why Iowa's gender politics should disqualify it for primary caucuses. Iowa has NEVER elected a woman to the Senate, the House or as their governor. Iowa is part of our problem, not the solution.

Our rank has dropped in each of the last ten years. Gives a new meaning to American Exceptionalism. As in: Except Women. I'd warrant that most people think we in the U.S. rank in at least the top five in the world for gender equity (we're 19th, BTW), especially for women's political representation. But 40th?

Last Friday in the "Forum" section of The Washington Post, political scientist Jeanne Zaino asked an important question: Given the fact that Iowa has no record of electing women to our legislature or as governor, should it have the distinction, honor and power of holding the first and very important caucus?

No. It should not have that honor. It's like rewarding it for sexist obstinacy. Trivializing and ignoring it's deplorable record is a way of rewarding bias, sexism and inequality. It's how we continue to pay lip service to the concept of gender equality without taking it to it's logical gender conclusion. Can you imagine a world where these gender numbers were reversed? Now, that would be a "boy crisis" you could really sink your teeth into.

But, the truly sad and shocking fact is how not alone Iowa is. According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, although there are four states (Delaware, Iowa, Mississippi and Vermont) that have never sent women to Congress, half of all states have never elected a female senator or governor.

I know that there are people and organizations, partisan and non-partisan, working very hard in Iowa and across the country to change this. Organizations like Emerge, She Should Run, The White House Project and Off The Sidelines, and others are dedicated to building infrastructures to address this imbalance at local, regional, state and national levels.

I also know that change takes time and "we've come a long way," blah blah blah. But this is ridiculous now. At the very least, we should be honest and stop insisting that we're all good, in fact, "better than the rest of the world." That myth is how our lack of female representation in governance ends up "not mattering" when it really does.

Iowa, as Zaino pointed out, has a long-standing demonstrable resistance not just to electing women to represent it, but also to women running for presidential office in the Iowa Caucus. You would think that if anyone could overcome it in Iowa, it would be Michele Bachman, so keen on using works like "submissive" to illustrate her commitment to traditional, conservative "values" -- the ones now being used to mess with her. Zaino points out that, despite her avowals, Bachman was recently asked by two Iowan evangelical leaders to defer to Rick Santorum, their candidate of choice. These men, I'd say two of the finest minds of the 19th century except that gives the 19th century a bad name, urged her to defer her ambitions and be a running mate. They backed Santorum, even though his numbers were lower at the time. This isn't despite her conservatism -- it's because of it. It's what words like "helpmeet" and "handmaiden" and "submissive" mean when the "traditional" rubber hit the caucus road in Iowa.

There are LOTS of reasons why Bachman would be asked to step aside, but those reasons do not include her gender. Suggesting that she should be a female "Mini Me" running mate to Rick Santorum is a specifically condescending and patriarchal option. Among commonly cited reasons that women don't do well in Iowa caucuses are that Iowa skews elderly, conservative and rural with traditional values and, as such, isn't truly representative of the country at large. An unrelated "5 Myths About Iowa Caucuses" piece, which ran three days after Zaino's piece, debunked these ideas without making any reference to Zaino's article or gender bias.

And gender bias is what this is about. Gender bias in culture and education but, particularly salient in this case, in politics and in media.

A couple of years ago, when we had a slightly higher ranking, a guest on Tucker Carlson's popular TV program said, "It's embarrassing. We rank 68th in the world for women's political participation!" His dismissive response?

"I'm not embarrassed. When I get up at a baseball game and sing the Star Spangled Banner ... I'm not embarrassed at all."

Really? What did that mean? That patriotism is incompatible with gender equity? With feminism? Carlson went on to ask his guest, "If women want women in Congress then why don't they vote for them?" How can he imply that our nation's increasingly poor showing is just a "women's problem?" What drivel.

Typical drivel, actually. Tucker Carlson's flip response was belittling and painted a portrait of the woman speaking as unpatriotic, silly, and extreme in her "feminist" views. This is par for the course for women running for office. Two recent studies demonstrate clearly how prevalent this type of sexist media response to and coverage of women running for office is and how it was responsible for derailing Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign. It's a serious issue for all of us -- not just women -- for two reasons:

1) Real democracies are truly representative. Women's involvement in public life and policy formulation is essential to that idea. Here is how Political Parity, a non partisan group, describes its importance:

  • According to lawmakers (male and female), women legislators make the political process more transparent and public.
  • Women bring a alternative style of advocacy, debate, and behavior to the legislative floors.
  • Unlike their male colleagues, women in legislative and executive posts are mostly motivated by policy goals, not power or prestige.
  • Women inclined to nonhierarchical collaboration, consensus building, and inclusion, and they bring that style to politics.
  • Women legislators are more likely to rely on constituent perspectives in agenda setting and deliberations.
  • The presence of women legislators has a major impact on the extent to which women's interests are represented in legislatures --a fact acknowledged by both female and male lawmakers.
  • Women legislators are more likely to consider how laws will affect women once enacted.

2) We have a "You can't be what you can't see" problem caused by sexism. With the exception of the Women's History Month posters we trot out, little girls and boys don't see women in public life: they're not on currency, not in statuary, not in historical imagery, not really visible in current photographs of powerful hierarchies in our culture (political, corporate, religious). Equal numbers of boys and girls want to grow up to be president until the age of seven. After that, girls start losing confidence or interest. Coincidentally, it's just around the time that they also start learning history, being subjected to marketing and advertising stereotypes, become more exposed to sexist and misogynistic portrayals of girls and boys. But that stuff's not important. What's important is the message being sent to women that it's their own fault that they don't run, don't have confidence in their abilities and don't vote. It has nothing to do with sexism, bias, media power, education and culture. They're just born undermining themselves. My husband is now asking me to stop slamming my head against the wall because it's only the first week of of the year and it's a leap year.

The number of women running for office, and seeking leadership roles in high schools and colleges declined in 2011. We face a crisis across the board in getting girls and women involved in the political process. After 20 years of a conservative cultural backlash we have a media and entertainment machine optimized to undermine the idea that women can be powerful leaders ... so much so that girls and women doubt the abilities of their own gender.

Correlations between gender equity and economic success, more equitable wealth distribution, reduction of societal violence and measures of populations' happiness are well documented.

Our false sense of superiority and national cultural disinclination to consider gender issues systematically and seriously has real, day-to-day economic ramifications for people. The sluggish traditional, conservative values holding us back in terms of political parity are the same ones that make it difficult for boys and men to adapt to rapidly changing economies, educational demands and family structures and for women to contribute equally to our society.

That's why I think it's unpatriotic and irresponsible to ignore sexism.

We can keep perpetuating these values and cultures or we can Name It Change It. This is actually the name of a non-partisan project of WCF Foundation, Women's Media Center, and Political Parity that is trying to do just that. Go check them out.