“It’s the year of women!” “Women’s votes will decide this election.” Such declarations are fairly common in the lead-up to election day, but say little about the actual representation of women in the House and the Senate. The female voting bloc might be becoming more powerful, but that doesn’t mean women get more of a say in our country’s decision-making processes.
The Nov. 4 midterm election marked the first time that 100 women were elected to serve in the U.S. Congress — up from 99 on Nov. 3.
Celebrating round numbers is nice, and increasing the number of women representing Americans is important, but we still have a long way to go to get real political parity. After all, there are 535 voting members in Congress — less than one-fifth standing in for 50.8 percent of the population.
If you are a straight black woman under the age of 45 with a bachelor’s degree, there is exactly one person like you in Congress. She is Mia Love, the representative-elect in Utah who is the country’s first female black Republican elected to Congress. If you’re a straight white woman under 45 with a bachelor’s degree — like me — there are exactly two people like you in Congress. I certainly don’t feel represented.
A politician doesn’t need to be a woman to represent them fairly, but it certainly helps. A man can understand that access to sexual health care is important, but he doesn’t have to wonder why a group of strangers can legislate what his body can and can’t do. A man can get the importance of equal pay and how difficult raising a family might be, but it usually isn’t his career that’s harmed by the limits of maternity leave policy after a baby is born.
In Colorado, Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, who has actively worked on behalf of women’s reproductive rights, lost his election to Cory Gardner, a U.S. representative who has co-sponsored two different personhood amendments, declaring that life begins at conception. For his decision to focus most of his campaigning on reproductive rights, Udall was derided as “Mark Uterus” — indeed, the Denver Post chose not to endorse him for that very reason.
Udall’s opponents claim that women care about more than access to contraception and abortion. They’re right.
As a young female voter, while I’m grateful that men such as Udall stand up for my right to start a family when I’m ready, I’m also irritated that this issue is still up for debate. I’m more interested in talking about everything else we need to do to make women matter as much as men do, each day beyond election day.
In a world where economic power and political power are increasingly one and the same, women need the same kinds of opportunities that most men have benefited from for years: a fair paycheck, the ability to start a family while continuing in your career, and plenty of role models and superiors of the same gender. Women’s work, including in the service industry, needs to be valued the same way men’s work is. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled that home health care aides were excluded from being able to join a public sector union in Harris vs. Quinn, a decision speaking to the value of women’s labor. Is it any wonder that all three of the court’s female justices dissented?
Lastly, as long as our campaign finance laws continue to disintegrate, the policymakers so dependent on election cash will hear fewer female voices. Men not only tend to contribute more money to federal campaigns, but they also make larger donations.
Of the 100 top campaign contributors in 2012, only 11 were women. Is it any wonder that politicians seek our votes without actually listening to what we have to say?
Suzanne Merkelson is a graduate student in public policy at UC Berkeley, studying the intersection of politics and policy. This article was originally posted on SFGate.