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Where Are the Women?

We need more women in the boardrooms, in positions of leadership and in the halls of Congress. Our laws need to be promulgated by smart men AND women and this should be an important priority.
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I had breakfast recently with courageous New York City Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who had the wisest and most poignant line of the year: when she attended a congressional hearing on contraception and saw only men on "the panel of experts" she asked incredulously: "Where are the women?"

This was both a literal and figurative question and it feeds into one of the biggest problems we have in society today: too many men -- and too few women -- are making decisions that directly affect women's lives.

We need more women in the boardrooms, in positions of leadership and in the halls of Congress. Our laws need to be promulgated by smart men AND women and this should be an important priority.

Whether to have an abortion is a decision between a woman and her conscience.

No one else can decide this.

Preserving that choice has been one of the many strides we've made in America in the last generation, but choice is constantly under assault. So far, our society has resisted any substantive challenge to Roe vs. Wade.

Recently, a woman's access to contraception has come under assault (most famously by that paragon of women's rights, Rush Limbaugh) and this is another example of men needlessly meddling in an intensely private woman's decision. And, of course, it is an inherently contradictory stance for those who want to limit abortions: If women have easy access to birth control, there will be fewer pregnancies and thus fewer abortions.

Got that, Mr. Limbaugh?

But there is an even larger issue at play here: We need women to be united in facing down the assault on women's rights. We should not get sidetracked on internecine conflicts like Hilary Rosen's clumsy attack on GOP candidate Mitt Romney's wife, Anne Romney ("She hasn't worked a day in her life.").

Setting up a false competition between childless women, working moms and full-time moms, Rosen has unwittingly diverted attention from more important issues like the objectification of women's looks, the increasing challenge to women's sexual and reproductive rights and the soaring double standard that exists when judging women in public life.

Actress Ashley Judd recently wrote an incredibly poignant and insightful essay on The Daily Beast on the corrosive problem of judging women on their looks and how this has reached epidemic proportions in 21st century America. Her essay is a must-read for everyone -- especially men like me who have daughters and want to ensure that they grow up in a more enlightened society than we did.

I recently spent a week on vacation with my two teenage daughters and it was a real eye opener. So much time is spent on Facebook posting pictures and looking at other people's photos that it becomes clear that kids today are in an ever-increasing competition to show themselves in a flattering way to their peers.

"Oh, she's so pretty."

"I don't like the way she looks in this photo."

"Why would she put up that picture that makes her look so fat?"

These are the types of comments that are transmitted digitally on Facebook and other photo sharing platforms and they are symptomatic of the problem in society.

I'm not suggesting this is a new phenomenon; my European-born late parents in the mid-1950s spent much of their time worrying about grooming, fashion and looks and this is dramatically portrayed in the photos of their young lives that are framed in my home.

But, as a society, we should have progressed significantly in two generations. To paraphrase the late Martin Luther King, Jr., we should be judging women (and men) on the content of their character (and ideas), rather than on the smoothness of their skin or the straightness of their hair. Looks should be a very distant consideration when judging other people, but today it is still number one for too many. I see little in the next generation that gives me great optimism that this will improve.

Which brings me back to Carolyn Maloney's great phrase: "Where are the women?" We have great women role models on the Supreme Court who have made it because of their superior brain power: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.

In New York City, there are many women CEOs and elected leaders who should serve as great role models for our daughters; women in Real Estate like Dottie Herman, Pam Liebman and Diane Ramirez. Women in media and publishing like Elinor Tatum, Jill Abramson and Jill Kaplan. And women in local political office like Gale Brewer, Jessica Lappin, Letitia James, Melissa Mark-Viverito, Elizabeth Crowley and Grace Meng. And community and education leaders like Julie Menin, Leonie Haimson and Dr. Kelly Posner Gerstenhaber.

We should be teaching our daughters about their lives. We should be producing posters of them that our daughters can hang in their rooms (instead of Blake Lively or Miley Cyrus, talented actresses and musicians, who shouldn't be the only role models for young girls).

We should all teach our daughters to be as courageous and outspoken as Carolyn Maloney when they encounter injustice to women.

"Where are the women?"

They are all around us: people like Sonia Sotomayor and Hillary Clinton and Mary Anne Tighe.

They just need to be revered.

Tom Allon is a liberal and Democratic candidate for mayor of New York City in 2013. He is raising two teenage daughters, who he hopes will become CEOs or Supreme Court Justices one day.

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