Democracy is Every Woman, It is all in Her

By Michael Houseman

I’ve been feeling something lately and dissonance may be the word for it. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs released a report over the weekend claiming that political parties in the Democratic Republic of the Congo were struggling to meet the legal requirement to recruit women to run for parliamentary seats. “I don’t like politics,” or “I’ll have to ask my husband first,” were many of the answers given when party officials asked women to join and represent them in parliament. The report stated that the capitol, Kinshasa, had the greatest amount of women holding local political office at 7%. The war-torn province of Kivu? 3%. Not quite the 30% that Congolese law mandates.

My sense of dissonance appeared when my friend and I were talking about the issue over dinner, and she convinced me that quotas for women’s placement in parliaments was something to be frowned upon. Her critiques of the policy were valid: is this a true democracy if voters cannot wholly decide who they elect? What about equal opportunity? Women are getting preference over men, is this not reverse sexism? I have been a proponent of Resolution 1325, which strives to bring women to the table and ensure their voice in conflict resolution. But turning around and opposing quotas seemed off-putting, though at the time I simply could not find the words to articulate why. I grudgingly agreed with her. “After all,” she said, “no woman wants to hold office just because she is a woman.”

Unraveling my apprehension that night took some research. Is it democratic to give women a place in government on the sole basis that they are female? I am not sure, so I looked to our friends in India, the world’s largest democracy. Electoral law in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Maharashtra, and Tripura requires 50% of seats in panchayats and municipalities to be filled by women. While legislation to bring quotas on the national level remains stalled in the Union Government, the topic provides a sharp contrast to the United States, where ideas of quotas are entirely unheard of. Only 16.9% of American seats in the House and Senate are occupied by women, ranking the country 69th among all nations in terms of women’s participation, just 0.1% higher than Turkmenistan. It seems that in a “true” democracy the demographics of representatives would match the demographics of their constituents, at least in terms of gender. This is not to say that some states in India are a “truer” democracy than the United States—both nations have dismal examples where democratic values lose ground to more immediately negotiable virtues—but do quotas help realize an ideal democracy in the long run?

Then there is the issue of barriers to women’s advancement: many women are not afforded equal opportunities if institutional sexism views them as likely to leave work to start a family or as emotionally unstable, prone to buckling under the pressures of having to perform in “a man’s world.” Quotas compensate for these hurdles in the short-term, and they are a bold step toward the direction of creating lasting equity in representation. If women have a seat in legislative bodies now, no matter how, it would set the stage to normalize their presence in government, challenging the “man’s world” of politics and opening the path for women to be elected for qualities more than for simply meeting legal requirements. If democracy so far has vastly underrepresented 51% of the population, should we here in America not be scrambling for concrete solutions to address this situation?

Settling for quotas appears to be an uneasy affair in the short term, but they can be an invitation for a truly gender representative democracy in the future. Allowing more women in legislative positions will bring a more diverse outlook to politics, no matter if it is in Congo or Kerala or California. They may like politics more, they may not have to ask their husbands to run for office, and they may surprise us.

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