Does Gender Identification Have a Place In Our Political System?

Perspectives impact rulings. Understanding other lives is not the forte of homogeneous groups. I am not talking about symbolic diversity. I am not talking about role models and success stories. I am talking about bringing a kind of life perspective to our political representation that will not find its way there on its own.
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The 2012 elections are over and it was a landmark one for women. Female voters made up 54 percent of the electorate, and according to exit polls, 55 percent of those women voted for Obama, coming out in support of equal pay for equal work, funding for preventative health care, and the right to decide what they do with their bodies. Thanks to a few key victories, women now make up 20 percent of the Senate, which boasts its first gay member in Wisconsin's newly elected Tammy Baldwin. Meanwhile, wins in the state of New Hampshire have created the country's first all-female delegation: a female governor, two senators, and two Congresswomen. This time around, gender, it would seem, trumped politics.

The question is: does that kind of gender identification have a place in our political system? Simple answer: yes.

Given the stubborn issues still facing women today, gender matters. In this past presidential election there was new life in the move to de-fund Planned Parenthood altogether and a resurrection of the demand that any health care plan offering abortion coverage be barred from participating in insurance exchanges under the health care plan. Not that the new arrivals could turn the tide on those issues alone. Both arms of Congress are still firmly in the hands of men. Women in, women out -- what's the big deal? Yet, in this past election gender's judicial flashpoint -- reproductive choice -- was in jeopardy of limiting or denying that choice. Women saw that threat as no man possibly could.

Here's a quick glimpse of why gender is every bit as important to the Supreme Court. In a case brought by four women against AT&T in 2008 and settled in 2009, the Court ruled that decades-old pregnancy leaves taken under old pension rules do not have to be counted in calculating pension payouts. It was a small case, with limited immediate impact. Business won and women lost -- one of those dissenting was the then-lone woman on the Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Justice Ginsburg, who says her tireless support of workplace equality was shaped by her own professional struggles, wrote: "Certain attitudes about pregnancy and childbirth throughout human history have sustained pervasive, often law-sanctioned, restrictions on a woman's place among paid workers and active citizens."

Women like Justices Ginsberg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan and former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor have fought their own battles against workplace inequality and have come out of those battles with a unique appreciation for the pain.

Perspectives impact rulings. Understanding other lives is not the forte of homogeneous groups. I am not talking about symbolic diversity. I am not talking about role models and success stories. I am talking about bringing a kind of life perspective to our political representation that will not find its way there on its own.

A study of federal appeals court judges by academics at Northwestern University and Washington University found that female judges are 10 percent more likely to rule in favor of women bringing sex discrimination suits. And when female and male judges hear a case together, the male judges are 15 percent more likely to rule for the plaintiff then when the judges are all men.

The Court recently heard arguments in a suit brought by a 19-year-old woman who, as a 13-year-old honor student, was strip-searched by school nurses who were looking for prescription-strength Ibuprofen (none was found). The male justices treated it as trivial -- even amusing. Justice Stephen Breyer said: "In my experience, when I was eight or 10 or 12-years-old, you know, we did take our clothes off once a day, we changed for gym, OK?"

Reports of Justice Ginsburg's obvious exasperation during the arguments were followed by a USA Today interview, where she said of her fellow Justices: "They have never been a 13-year-old girl. It's a very sensitive age for a girl. I didn't think my colleagues, some of them, quite understood."

Whether they are made, affirmed or changed, national policy must reflect the fact that the community our legislative bodies directs and protects is at least 50 percent women and many of these women still rightly feel the pull of centuries of lesser-citizenship.

But let's extend the question beyond women's issues. Writing in the Washington Post, Vince Bzdek argued that it wasn't until a woman -- Nancy Pelosi -- worked her way to a position of power that we got a health care bill after almost a century of futility. "Pelosi's animating ambition," he wrote," has been to put so-called women's and family issues such as health care, education and the welfare of children on the same level as homeland security, foreign relations and defense." Speaker John Boehner has not shown himself similarly inclined.

Women have a special vulnerability in the slime-fest that is politics. Writing on the website, The Women's Media Center, Jill Miller Zimon argues that "The biggest bugaboo out there right now -- I often think it's being manipulated specifically to scare off women -- is the media bias, sexism and stereotyping, all rolled-up into one multi-layered systemic problem."

Pick your point of attack: hair, fashion, parenting, experience, toughness, past lovers. Any woman can be painted as too hard, too soft, or too stupid. You don't have to guess very long about what would have happened to a woman who succumbed to John Boehner's serial blubbering

But -- as if any woman leader needs reminding -- females in high positions must walk heel to toe along a fine line that is invisible for men. Too aggressive, and you're a bitch. Too accommodating, and you're passive. Universal? No. True? Ask any woman who has been there. The binary bitch-pushover conundrum is only one of many destructive stereotypes. Men negotiate; women placate. Women nurture; men take charge. Women ask questions; men make statements. Women take it personally; men shrug it off. And on it goes.

The standard comeback: quit whining (like a girl) and get on with the job. Results trump everything. But the fact is that leadership is about perception. And as long as perception is complicated by assumption, it is tremendously destructive to a woman's ability to achieve those results. And there is little doubt -- particularly in the current climate -- sexualized coverage and attacks will remain a factor in political races.

As we still grapple with issues that can change the lives of tens of millions of women, those female experiences and thoughts must have a place in the debate. And the only path to securing that place is through more elected officials that are women. Until women are in leadership positions approaching the numbers of men; until organizations truly figure out how to move diversity from keeping score to creating advantage - for women leaders, gender issues will be an unwritten part of the job description.

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