Why Women Aren't Taking Over Congress After All
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As the literal and figurative givers of life, women value the investment of their time and want to see that it has meaning. Caring for children and family members and looking after the underserved in the community disproportionately falls into female hands, both personally and professionally. It's a job we take seriously, and which draws us toward politics in the first place.
But once we get there, many of us don't want to spend our time seeking the approval of the old boys' club, asking strangers for money, and launching attack ads against political opponents. We'd much rather roll up our sleeves and find a better way to teach art in failing schools, cleanup a neighborhood park and make meals for those who wouldn’t otherwise eat. Given the choice, it's no surprise many women will choose to put their energies in places where they can see they make a tangible difference in people's lives.
This leads to the elephant in the room: what about the women who do make it? For the most part, the women who rise to the upper echelons of elective office have become so immersed in the pitched battle that they become even more competitive than their male counterparts -- a development that blunts their effectiveness as real changemakers. While they may advocate for some positive social and justice issues, they often find themselves too busy playing the hierarchical, authoritarian mens' game to spend any energy on changing the tone, nature and outcomes of a system that's designed to bring people down rather than build them up.
Given this, is it any wonder that women who are truly interested in change eschew elective office? As a girl, I wanted to be the first women president. I dreamed of the job not because I wanted to live in a big house and tell people what to do, but because I wanted to see people lifted out of poverty, and to be able to pursue their passions and live in safe, caring and happy communities. Yes, it was a bit utopian -- but given the choice between giving it up to fight political battles, or working toward this goal each day in the way I lead my life, the latter choice is the obvious one for me. And given what I see in my classrooms, with my clients and in the statistics, I am not the only one choosing to lead by example instead of in elected office.
What will it take to change the future for women in the American political system? Three things need to happen to change the way women (indeed, everyone with a sincere desire to create change) engage in the process:
1. Women need to run, and serve, as women. There is a choice between entering politics and playing the masculine game, and consciously choosing to be true to oneself. Consultants, women’s groups and funders may all encourage a “traditional” route to office -- but one needs to look no further than Congress to see how well that strategy is working out for our country. The public is crying out for authentic leaders willing to work for the good of the people rather than the fortunes of individual candidates. Women who stand in their feminine power, and insist on building consensus and creating real solutions will be rewarded.
2. Local office offers more balance and more opportunity for real results. In the American Idol era, too many of us have come to believe that our lives are meaningless unless they're being acted out on big stages. In politics, the stratification is clear, and the pressure to “move up” is enormous for anyone with a modicum of talent. National parties hungry for victory scour statehouses looking for the next big candidate.