Leveling the Playing Field for Women in Politics Is Not Divisive

04/08/2016 04:30 pm ET Updated Apr 08, 2017

Thanks to Bernie Sanders v. Hillary Clinton in the fight for the Democratic nomination for President, the number of women particularly within the Democratic Party has returned as the topic du jour in 2016. Some argue that the most qualified person should get the job, a sentiment with which I agree, although it has become clear in recent days being "qualified" clearly means different things to different people. That all being said, the fight to increase gender representation in politics has reached an uncomfortable crossroads for many in politics, because to increase gender representation in politics, sometimes the nice qualified male candidate will have to lose.

There has been much conversation around Emily's List's endorsement in the 2016 US Senate Race in Maryland. Their candidate is Congresswoman Donna Edwards, an African American single mother, who amongst her work is perhaps best known for starting the National Network to End Domestic (NNEDV) and working with advocates to advance the Violence Against Women Act . Across the table, there is Congressman Chris Van Hollen, a very friendly guy by everyone's accounts, who is leader on the House Budget Committee. By all accounts both are qualified, some will argue Van Hollen is more qualified because he was appointed Chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and higher ranking positions in the House, but Emily's List endorsed Donna Edwards, much to the consternation of many pro-choice Democrats in Maryland. "But Van Hollen is pro-choice!" yelled some. "Gender doesn't qualify Rep. Edwards for public office," snarked others. Both sentiments are true, but Emily's List mission is REALLY clear, they endorse pro-choice Democratic women for office, not men, women. Emily's List also is rather strategic in that they don't just endorse every Democratic woman running for office, they identify women candidates of promise while strategically targeting seats that could be flipped in favor of Democrats, or in the case of Maryland, seats that are solidly in the Democratic Party's column.

Why Emily's List endorsement and financial support of Donna Edwards in the Democratic primary makes people so angry is amusing, it's not like they've ever been unclear about their mission. And then it hit me, it's all well and good to support qualified pro-choice Democratic women running for office until it interferes with qualified pro-choice Democratic men running for office.

Well inevitably this day was going to come. The day when Emily's List, and other PAC organizations like it (although Emily's List is the undisputed most effective leader in the field of either Party in recruiting and electing women) were going to be so successful at what they do, there would come the time when a qualified progressive pro-choice woman runs against a qualified progressive pro-choice man.

There are many organizations doing the national work of electing more women to public office, Emily's List GOP equivalent is The WISH List. There are nonpartisans PACs who endorse pro-choice women like the National Women's Political Caucus and the Women's Campaign Fund or non partisan pro-life PACs like the Susan B. Anthony List. There are PACs focused on encouraging more young women to run like the Women Under Forty PAC. There are many more state PACs supporting women in Texas, North Carolina, New York, and Virginia. There are also some realizing that the PAC space for women is well occupied have focused on prepping the pipeline through training like Emerge America.

Why is it important to elect more women to public office? Besides the idea that a democracy should look a little more like its people it purports to represent? Increased gender representation in government does in fact correlate to public policies that benefit women.

A Center for American Women in Politics, a nationally recognized as the leading source of scholarly research and current data about American women's political participation, showed through surveys of women legislators, they ranked health care, children, families, education, environment, and the elderly (issues women tend to consider more ) and women's rights legislation a top priority over other issues compared to their male legislator counterparts. Congresswomen in previous sessions of Congress were more likely to sponsor women's issues legislation, according to compiled paper released by Political Parity, a nonpartisan platform that works to change the face of US politics.

Now, let me be clear. This also does not mean progressive women should run out and support the likes of Sarah Palin or Carly Fiorina for Vice President or President for the sake of gender representation. I, and many progressive women, find disagree with their politics and that of many other conservative women. Obviously we should take into account our own values when voting.

What I am saying though, and what research shows is even conservative women have a perspective to bring that even conservative men can't. Before Sarah Palin began to be a political punchline, and a bane to progressives everywhere, she showed an understanding of the struggles women face in politics to be taken seriously. In a 2010 interview, Palin commented about the "double standard" for women who show emotional vulnerability in politics. Her candidacy as the 2008 GOP nominee for Vice President forced the Republican Party leadership, who are normally happy to dogwhistle sexist comments, into decrying sexism in the media. And as much as I found Carly Fiorina infuriating on women's rights, she did a surprisingly astute video flipping the gender paradigm and asking "what if women talked like men in the workplace" singling out every day sexist comments and questions women receive from their male colleagues and superiors. As someone who worked in business for years, where there were few woman, I can imagine Fiorina is very well acquainted with sexism in the workplace like many women are, which is what made that video rather smart for her. However, I will leave the struggles for gender parity within the Republican Party to my female colleagues who know it best across the aisle.

As a former candidate for public office who also spent years working on Democratic campaigns to elect both men and women, I'm all about electing Democratic men who are great for the progressive cause and are allies in the continued fight for gender equality in public policy and all aspects of life, but I'm also about raising up the leadership and voices of Democratic women because I know their voices will bring value to the table, and there is nothing wrong with prioritizing that as a value.

"Power concedes nothing without a demand" said Frederick Douglass. He was right.

Regarding Democratic women elected officials, we wouldn't be where we are now in Democratic politics without Emily's List. Many forget or don't know Barbara Mikulski would never have been fighting for Maryland in the US Senate had they not made her candidacy their first test case in 1986. Emily's List took a politically active woman who was not getting the support from the Democratic donors who were told to support her male opponent and gave her the money to compete. Emily's List created the "demand" that Douglass talked about and have gone on to recruit and elect many more women at the federal, state, and local level.

Gone should be the days of male candidates and their female allies pushing their way into a public office role by calling women's political organizations out for supposedly playing identity politics. One Emily's List veteran in speaking to Joan Walsh about this topic in Walsh's recent article said in situations where they run a progressive woman against a progressive guy they are called "divisive": 'Why don't you go look for a race where you're not fighting a guy like that?', they continued, "Well, you know what that means? The white guys get the easy seats, and the women and people of color are fighting in the toughest districts--and often losing."

It's ridiculous this pushback, when it's all well and good to support these organizations and their candidates when they don't threaten men of their own party. From talking to my colleagues in this work, I know there are women who've stepped aside over the years to make room for men running who were tapped by Party leaders on both sides of the aisle, but not many men do the same. Emily's List and organizations like it, step in to make sure women not only run for that seat, but have the support to take that seat the table.

We can't always have it both ways, until we have more women elected to public office, inevitably a man, no matter his qualifications, will lose.