March 3, 1998
by Marsha Whiting
What difference does it make if more women are elected to political office? Some Alabamians say they don't really care if there are few women in government. So what?
Proponents of the election of more women argue that electing more women is a matter of justice and equity. Jodie Heintz of The Center for the American Woman and Politics (CAWP) told a recent Alabama Solution conference, "It's a matter of basic democracy.....Women are 52 percent of the voting population; it only makes sense that women should hold a corresponding number of positions in our states' and nation's decision-making bodies."
The argument of parity as justice becomes more persuasive in light of the research Ms. Heintz has conducted showing that women bring a different set of perspectives, priorities, and life experiences to public office. Women and men are socialized differently, and therefore encounter different worlds that shape their attitudes on public policy issues. Women have a unique impact on policy.
Women are more apt to support liberal policies in education, health care, social services, environmental protection, and other areas that are close to their hearts. Women's tendency to be nurturers, more caring and empathic toward others is cited as a basis shaping women's political attitudes.
CAWP research found that women legislators are more likely to work on bills that deal specifically with issues of direct concern to women, such as legislation concerning rape, teen pregnancy or women's health, pay equity, maternity leave and day care, domestic violence and divorce.
Auburn University Professor Wayne Flynt says women need to be at the table when policies affecting women's lives are discussed to assure that women's unique perspectives are included in the debate and that their needs are addressed. "The most important issues facing us today are issues traditionally considered to be women's issues: decline of the family, public health, education, pollution, crime, and child welfare. Women have been in the trenches doing the field work on these issues. They are the experts, and are much more able to herald these issues than men." Flynt concludes, "this should be a primary marketing point for women candidates", as he encourages women to enter the political process.
Research showing that the more women are in legislative office, the more the legislature is attuned to women's problems is particularly relevant in Alabama in light of a recent survey conducted by George magazine that ranked Alabama "overall worst" of the 50 states for women. Of seven categories surveyed by the magazine's editors, Alabama was ranked last in job opportunities for women, and near the bottom in most other categories, including political representation, standard of living, income parity with men, and education level.
Women in Alabama clearly have a long way to go to improve their status and the quality of their lives. By electing more women to political office, women will ensure that their voices will be heard on those issues critical to us and our families. In the words of Birmingham Southern political scientist Natalie Davis, "We can't afford not to; we owe it to our daughters."
According to former state senator Ann Bedsole, who spent 16 years in the Alabama legislature, "men tend to run for political office to further their careers, while women run to further their causes."
Faced with the daunting prospects of raising large amounts of money to fund their campaigns, many potential women candidates simply don't run. According to Davis, "Women have a terrible time in the primary process......Men are more likely to be entrenched with special interest groups such as the Alabama Trial Lawyers Association and the Business Council of America, which means women are fighting both incumbency and special interest money. ... The good news is that if they survive the primary they have a tendency to win, especially in state elections."
Lenora Pate, a Birmingham lawyer who is running for the Democratic nomination for governor this year, says that all qualified women should be encouraged to run. "Women are reluctant to take the first.....They have been attacked at the level of should they be doing this or should they be at home taking care of children."
Most women probably would place their children's need above their political aspirations, but it doesn't have to be an either/or proposition. Women can have it all, but not all at the same time. There is time for raising children and time for full-time political life. Besides, why couldn't we include child care within the government. Male and female elected officials would benefit.