Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Vision for Parity in Congress

(Posted on via the “Women Issues” page, 12-14-08)

Both Barack Obama and Joe Biden have good records on women’s issues, and an agenda to match. But when will women have the opportunity to look out for themselves and lead the way to dealing successfully with those issues once-and-for-all?

That can only happen when there is parity, or a reasonable facsimile, in the U.S. Congress where our laws are made…when women will have the critical mass to insure that “women’s issues” do not continue to languish as perpetual agenda items on the back burner. Until then, women will continue to be – despite our various, important individual achievements and oft-comfortable lifestyles – second-class citizens.

I have been engaged for some years in bringing to light whenever possible just how far behind we are as a nation in electing women. Indeed, women – slightly more than 51% of the population, in all demographics -- make-up a measly 17 percent of Congress, 232 years after Independence! And, in fact, there are 19 states with NO women in Congress; they used to call this “taxation without representation.” Last, but certainly not least, the United States is about 70th in the world for electing women – between Mauritius and Bolivia.

Tell all this to the average men or women on the street, and they will be stunned. Certainly the Media rarely focuses on this gross inequity, almost like it’s taboo or undemocratic somehow. It is our very own dirty little secret -- and will not change much in my lifetime if we continue as is.

Some of the progress in other countries has been though legislation, but most has come because of voluntary political party reform spearhead by visionary leaders (with pressure from women). Hats off to Nelson Mandela in South Africa (“Every Other Seat a Woman’s Seat), the Scandinavian countries, the British Labour Party (“All-women’s short list”), and even the King of Morocco. Mohammed VI has made a commitment to help women be elected to 30 percent of Moroccan Parliamentary seats by 2015. Where are our concrete, quantifiable strategies and goals in order to accelerate the election of women?

Fifty-fifty by 2020 (the 100th Anniversary of women’s suffrage)? Do we know the real meaning of Women’s Equality Day? Is the ERA dead? Who will lead U.S. women to the Promised Land?

One strategy for electing more women to Congress and suitable to our political system would be “Every Open Seat a Woman’s Seat” – dedicated recruitment, support and funding of women primarily to run for Open Seats (in addition to supporting women who choose to challenge incumbents). This concept has been scoffed at as a kind of a kind of set-aside, but it needs only be temporary until we catch up. Progress in other countries has been made because of dedicated strategies and the realization that they are essential to the achievement of Equal Representation. Ongoing lip service with no plan is simply not good enough!

For example: In 2008, women won 15 % of Open Seats. Had women won 50% of those seats, the numbers would have gone from 16.3% to 20% of Congress, instead of 16.3 % to 17%. That’s would have been real progress. It would also have required real commitment by our political leaders to parity.

The Obama-Biden administration could and should spearhead political party reform – starting with the Democratic Party -- aimed at advancing parity for women in Congress through concrete strategies. There are, of course, many pressing issues. But the 2010 elections will soon be upon us, and action on this front cannot and should not be put off yet again. Significantly more women of either party in Congress, moreover, could indeed impact all other issues for the common good.

My vision of America is one where women, undivided, and men are truly equal – and parity in Congress would go a long, long way in making that a reality. Will I ever see it?

Paula Xanthopoulou