A common argument for gender parity in elected office is that women will lead differently — and often better — than men. “My own experience in Congress is when women are on committees and at hearings, the nature of the discussion is different, and the outcomes are better,” Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said last year. “It is essential to the health and future of our country that 50% of our population have equal power and leadership,” reads the mission of She Should Run, an organization aiming to recruit more women into politics. “Women aren’t better than men, but women are bringing a unique perspective to things that aren’t being talked about if [women] aren’t physically there in Congress,” says Jessica Grounds, a founder of the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee, which supports young women candidates of both parties.
Even renowned anti-feminist Margaret Thatcher, who died this week, advanced a version of this theory: “In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man,” she said in 1982. “If you want anything done, ask a woman.”
Indeed, there’s some data to support the argument that the handful of women who make it to the top work harder, make less impulsive decisions, are less corruptible, and are more likely to support pro-women social issues, as has been argued on the Cut before. However, with women so underrepresented, some lean to the opposite extreme, denying that barriers exist at all and adopting an attitude of “if I made it, everyone else can, too.”
Personally, I’m uncomfortable with the idea that a woman is biologically predisposed to govern in a way that’s discernibly different from a man of the same political persuasion. The argument — advanced by many well-meaning advocates of gender parity in politics — that women are more measured, more rational, and more compassionate suggests that there is an inherent difference between the genders. And that women are the fairer, gentler sex, a notion that has been the justification for decades, nay, centuries, of discriminatory policies and customs. There is as much variation among women as their is between women and men, and “different” doesn’t always mean “better.” Still, I understand the appeal of the women-govern-better argument. After decades of only the smallest incremental progress for women in politics, arguing we need parity for parity’s sake — because equality is the right thing to do — seems almost quaint.
So advocates of gender parity in politics must walk a bit of a tightrope, and nothing challenges their balance quite like prominent conservative women. When asked how she felt about notable Republican women like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, Gloria Steinem replied, “It’s very disheartening to confront someone who looks like you and behaves like them.” Even this seems to assume that there are “male” and “female” ways of governing.
Thatcher is history’s most notable counterexample to the notion that women are more socially responsible leaders. “There is an argument that Britain’s first female prime minister actually did very little for women,” writes Sky News correspondent Sophy Ridge. “She froze child benefit and refused to invest in affordable childcare, instead criticising working mothers for raising a ‘crèche generation.’ With the exception of Baroness Young, she promoted no women to her cabinet and no women above junior minister.” She appointed only one woman to her cabinet. The pay gap increased during her tenure, as did inequality.
“Women leaders aren’t all feminist heroes. Some just bring us closer to parity in historically male-dominated field of fascistic governance,” tweeted Rebecca Traister, who wrote a book about Hillary Clinton’s historic 2008 presidential run. She added, “Which, by the way, is not nothing!”
Feminists usually explain their opposition to powerful women they don’t support by stressing that this is about the candidate’s politics, not her gender. When John McCain added Sarah Palin to the Republican ticket in 2008, I wrote that “a woman candidate is not the same thing as a woman’s candidate.” Although I didn’t know it at the time, this was an echo of the slogan U.K. feminists adopted during Thatcher’s run for office in 1979: “We want women’s rights, not a right-wing woman.”
Expecting female candidates to act on behalf of not just their constituents but all people of their gender only increases political pressure. “There are still so few women in Congress, you really do have to represent much more than your own state,” Senator Barbara Boxer once said. “It is a pretty big burden.” Not everyone has the stomach or the stamina for that. It’s easy to see why a get-along type like Palin would do well in the short term — there are rewards for, as Steinem put it, looking like us but voting like them. It is unlikely that a white male politician with Palin’s experience would have made it onto the ticket in 2008, a year when diversity dominated the political conversation. Which is why I’ve long suspected that the first woman president will be a conservative. It’s a lot easier to advance to the top of male-dominated sectors when, even though you may look very different than the other power brokers at the table, you don’t actively challenge the status quo. This was certainly true of Thatcher. A 2011 Vanity Fair profile explains that “she never wanted to appear to upset the outward appearances of the old order.” She was an incredibly powerful woman who tempered that fact by extolling the virtues of “real men” and confirming the entrenched belief that women are underrepresented at the highest levels of politics not because of ingrained sexism and other complex societal factors, but because they choose not to participate.
Thatcher, like many women of various political persuasions, didn’t think feminism was part of her success story. “Some of us were making it long before women’s lib was ever thought of.” While I applaud the successes of exceptional women whose achievements manage to transcend gender-limiting traditions, there’s a reason it’s not called “woman’s rights,” singular. True gender parity and equality is something that only a critical mass of women can deliver. And if we want a critical mass of women represented in all corners of society, we need to acknowledge that women are not politically united. Which means we’re going to have to applaud the advancement of women of all ideologies — yes, even those who support policies that may undercut women.
In the 2012 election, there were a handful of districts where opposing female candidates were on the ballot. As we make progress in this political realm, we should theoretically start seeing more and more races like these. And as (presumably) women continue to make gains in all areas of society, my hunch is that the “women govern differently” theory will also slowly disappear. So while we should definitely work for gender parity in our elected offices, we should not be under the assumption that women leaders will always be more rational, more justice-oriented, more compassionate. If we really want equality, this may be the price of progress. As Thatcher herself once said in a very different context, “There is no alternative.”