President Obama’s recent nomination of Elena Kagan, closely following his nomination and the ultimate appointment of Sonia Sotomayor, brings up the important topic of women in U.S. politics. Sotomayor is only the third female Supreme Court Justice in history; if appointed, Kagan will be the fourth.
Despite continuous disparities in pay rates between women and men, women make up 51% of the population and seem to be in the workforce in more or less equal numbers to men. Yet in politics women lag behind, comprising only 17% of the U.S. senate.
Indeed, the women involved national politics are viewed in a different light than men. Women often feel like they need to act like men, coming off as tough and edgy. Many women in the highest levels of their profession even consider being called “tough” a compliment. In this mindset, being considered compromising, flexible, or nurturing would imply that a woman is not fit for her duties. In this mindset, we see the Sarah Palins chanting “Drill, baby, drill!” the Hillary Clinton’s supporting the Iraq war, and U.S. Senators Margaret Heckler and Louise Day Hicks voting to keep abortion restrictions in the health care reform bill.
Women in politics also frequently face more meticulous judgments about their personal lives than men do. Sarah Palin’s daughter’s illegitimate child stirred controversy among ideological conservatives, as does the fact that Kagan is fifty years old and unmarried. Perhaps this type of scrutiny feeds women’s tendencies to be tough or “bitchy” in high-level positions of power, or maybe it creates an unclear standard of what we really want for women in politics.
Interestingly, women’s entry into the political scene has sparked a lot of conversation about what women have to offer. In a recent Boston Globe article, Renee Loth argues that women’s experience running a family allows them to be collaborators and negotiators. Just as women’s natural mothering tendencies often make women great educators and health care providers, women could be powerful advocates in for much needed reform in these areas in the political scene. Women are also more risk-averse than men, and are consequently more resistant to go to war or make risky investments and decisions.
Other countries, including Rwanda, Sweden, South Africa, Cuba, Iceland, the Netherlands, and Finland, have recognized the value women bring to the political scene. In these countries, women make up between 40 and 56 percent of the lower houses of government. India has recently mandated that women occupy at least one third of its Parliament seats.
It’s time for women to embrace their inner characters, be it tough or nurturing, and enter the political scene. Obama’s nomination of two female Justices should be motivation for us to become active participants in the political scene and start being the change our country needs.