Getting Closer to the Levers of Power

Getting Closer to the Levers of Power

by Diane Vacca

“How do women achieve true parity in political representation?” The question is simultaneously simple and impossibly complex, perhaps triply so, when you add progressive feminism to the mix.

What do we want from our politics? Given the relatively pathetic female percentages that Americans see among elected officials, from Congress to state legislatures, how can we insist not just on equal numbers, but also on representation that powers our overall goals as progressive thinkers? Such a demand may seem impossibly naïve after even the charismatic and brilliant politician elected president in 2008 was unable to change the toxic ways of Washington.

But that demand feels more essential than ever, given the determination of the evangelists and the hard right to drag the rest of the country back to medieval chastity belts, Victorian debtor’s jails and Cold War-era McCarthy-style accusations and inquisitions. We need seats at the table where policy is made. “If you’re going to change things,” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg told The New York Times in 2009, “you have to be with the people who hold the levers.” This from someone who has fought all her life for justice, and who, years before she was appointed to the bench, founded the Women’s Rights Law Reporter and ran the ACLU Women’s Rights Law Project.

©Barbara Rachko

What’s stopping us?

The problem remains: how do we get close to parity so that more of us pull those levers of power and make real change? It seems that there’s more than a glass ceiling — there are multiple invisible barriers, seemingly of far stronger stuff than mere glass. Some are hoisted by outside forces — employers, families and power brokers in Washington and Madison Avenue. Others are internal, persuading individual women that the pursuit of political clout is either impossible or not worth it.

It’s easy to say that the latter is untrue. One simple example from Ginsburg’s career at the Supreme Court illuminates the materially different outcomes that women’s input can bring: In 2010, in Safford Unified School District v. Redding the male justices were prepared to rule against a 13-year-old girl who had been strip-searched at school. Then Ginsburg spoke knowingly about the humiliation and embarrassment an adolescent girl would experience — and convinced the men that forcing a young girl to undress in public is an unreasonable search and, as such, unconstitutional. And Ginsburg has said repeatedly that without the women’s movement in which she was a leader, change is impossible.

Outside the rarefied level of the Supreme Court, you can look to corporate America, where numerous studies have shown that corporations with women executives and board members perform better. Nonetheless, according to research conducted by American University’s Jennifer Lawless, women are less likely than men to view themselves as qualified. “Men look at themselves, and even if they think they can’t do it, they still do it,” Lawless told the National Journal recently. “Women hold themselves up to a hypothetical bar that no one could ever reach.”

On top of that is the double standard on self-promotion. “Women face a double bind. They’re penalized socially for behaving in ways that might be perceived as immodest, and they’re penalized professionally for behaving in ways that aren’t self-promoting,” says psychologist Marie-Helene Budworth, adding, “That’s an unfortunate reality, because self-promotion is key to getting ahead.”

All women run up against the sexism that strives to “keep women in their place.” Even women who have redefined that “place,” especially in politics, endure slurs and smears stemming from their femininity and attacks that extend even to their families.

News Media Makes it Worse

The media barrier is self-propagating. Julie Burton, president of the Women’s Media Center, explains. Obsessed with the appearance of women candidates, reporters often fail to ask about and discuss their experience and policy positions. “We know that when the media covers powerful women, they often seem to be more interested in their shoes than their views.”

What if they treated a male candidate the same way? the Women’s Media Center asks:

“His interview with MSNBC on Monday started six minutes late, presumably due to last minute chores or picking up his kids from school. This wouldn’t be the first time his personal life has intruded on his campaign. In his 2002 campaign for City Council, his two children were rarely seen in public, causing many to wonder who was taking care of them? Had their mother agreed to set aside her career for his? It will be difficult, to say the least, for Smith to convince the public that he’s ready for office if he can’t even balance work and fatherhood.” — Tessa Ross

Sexism like this diminishes voters’ views of and support for women candidates, says Women’s Media Center president Burton. As a result, women are 50 percent less likely than men to seriously consider running for office.


Must women be post-menopausal to be successful and immune from wolf calls? Sarah Palin is an attractive woman, and she flaunts her sexuality. Yet men have never been required to wear drab, loose-fitting clothing or downplay their attractiveness. Palin’s evident lack of preparedness to hold public office is fair game, but her appearance and her motherhood are not. How many women who saw the hostility in the jeers directed at Hillary Clinton (remember the Hillary nutcracker?) and witnessed the Palin spectacle will be willing to run for office if it means subjecting themselves and their families to such a harsh spotlight?

The media barrier also encompasses how stories are reported. “Because the media decides who gets to talk, it means that the media also decides who shapes the debate,” notes Burton. Only 21.7 percent of guests on Sunday morning political talk shows are women. Fewer women than men are interviewed and quoted in news stories. And even when they are, a woman profiled may be denigrated, as Elizabeth Warren has consistently been by the Boston Herald. The newspaper’s Howie Carr regularly addresses Warren — a Harvard professor in her sixties who may be U.S. senator from Massachusetts — as “Granny.”

It’s difficult to confront the vast and rapidly evolving media landscape so that offensive comments like this won’t be repeated many times over. If writers and talk-show hosts aren’t held accountable by organizations like Women’s Media Center, their gibes and innuendos hang out there indefinitely.

“Having It All” An Issue for All

The barrier getting most ink lately, of course, is the apparently timeless “work-family balance” issue, as if only women care about their families.

It’s no accident that many acclaimed women are over 50, well past their childbearing years — for example, Christine Largarde, the first woman to head the International Money Fund, or Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo. Some, like journalist Diane Sawyer and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, never had children at all. Others, like author J.K. Rowling and molecular biologist Shirley Tilghman, now president of Princeton University, chose careers with malleable time demands in order to find a work/family balance. Sheryl Sandberg, who is 43, married with two children and Chief Operating Officer of Facebook is a notable exception. “There’s no such thing as work-life balance,” she says. “There’s work, and there’s life, and there’s no balance.”

It would seem that recently appointed CEO of Yahoo! Marissa Mayer, who is only six years younger than Sandberg, belongs to another generation, the women for whom “feminism” has become a dirty word. It represents “negative energy,” Mayer said, “the militant drive and the sort of, the chip on the shoulder that sometimes comes with [having equal rights and being] just as capable, if not more so, than men.”

©Barbara Rachko

Mayer is very talented, but she clearly doesn’t understand or want to admit how the militant drive of the women who came before her made it possible for her not only to vote, but to have the ability to put off childbearing while building a career those women could only dream of. Or, just as likely, Mayer realizes that because feminism has now been twisted into a negative, it’s in her interest to denigrate it in a world dominated by men.

Mayer left her job as a Google executive when she was appointed at age 37 to lead Yahoo! as the youngest CEO of any Fortune 500 company. Applause all round for spectacular achievement. But when Mayer revealed that she is pregnant, the news reignited the firestorm set off in June by Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent essay, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All”. Slaughter had argued that women’s goal shouldn’t be “to have it all,” but rather to fight for the change of the social and business practices that make it so difficult for women to reach and survive at the top.

Mayer, feminist or not, became a test case. Judith Lichtman, senior adviser at the National Partnership for Women and Families, cheered: “They picked a star and she happens to be pregnant, and they didn’t discriminate against her.” Many were concerned, however, that the first-time mother doesn’t understand (as no one can) how completely life changes when a newborn enters the picture. Others were troubled, thinking it impossible to do both jobs well, that her child would suffer and that she might not live up to expectations. Some worried that Mayer’s example is a poor model for working women because so few people (men or women) are as well-resourced as she.

Women will continue to be the childbearers in the foreseeable future. As long as the “maternal imperative” (as Slaughter calls it) continues to be seen as a disability, women who decide against having children will have an easier time than the mothers who continue to labor with little support from social services and next to none at the workplace. For mothers, work/family balance will continue to be a major stumbling block as long as the corporate culture remains impervious to the real needs of the family.

Now that an increasing number of women like Mayer and Sandberg are cracking the glass ceiling, it’s up to them to establish a new paradigm by setting an example of enlightened respect for the needs of all workers. As pioneers, they have a responsibility not only to succeed and thereby demolish destructive and false gender stereotypes, but to get a firm grip on those elusive levers of power. They can change the corporate rules so that women — and all parents — are no longer discriminated against. By advocating and providing measures like affordable childcare, flextime, telecommuting and the opportunity to work from home, paid maternity and paternity leave and coordination of work and home schedules, they would improve the lot of all parents, not just mothers, who are still the default caretakers. They will also improve their bottom lines, for companies that take better care of their workers are paradoxically, but demonstrably, more profitable.

If policies like these become standard practice, women will have an easier time of achieving parity, and the resulting benefits for American society will be incalculable.

Diane Vacca, political bureau chief of Women’s Voices for, trained as a medievalist and taught medieval literature, Spanish and Italian at several universities before becoming a journalist with specialties in politics, the arts and New York City. Her work can also be found at Vacca Bureau of Investigation, Comedy Beat and the New York City biweekly Chelsea Now, where she covers everything from education and public housing to landmark designation and the arts.

Also see: Our Feminist Media Road Trip: Time to Take the Wheel by Jennifer L. Pozner in this edition of On The Issues Magazine

Also see: Broken Politics: Republicans Assail Suffrage Itself by Tanya Melich in this edition of On The Issues Magazine

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