Women’s Equality Day, marking the 94th anniversary of women’s suffrage , offers a moment to reflect on the so-called political progress of American women.
Emphasis on the “so-called.”
From our city halls to the halls of Congress, the face of American government remains overwhelmingly male. At current rates, it will take 107 years for women to comprise 50 percent of Congress, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. California, with the ninth-largest economy in the world, would rank an embarrassing 55th on the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s measure of women’s representation.
Of course, it is not fair. But we can agonize, or we can act.
Here then is a three-part plan for California to eliminate its political gender gap — and in the process blaze a path for the nation to follow:
One, double the number of California state lawmakers.
Two, let each Senate and Assembly district elect two members.
And three, mandate that one seat in every district be held by a woman and one by a man.
In the time it would take to qualify and pass a ballot initiative by a simple majority, 50 percent of California’s lawmakers would be women.
Why should you care if your representatives are men or women, if they share your views and are competent? Most importantly, because fair representation is a fundamental principle of democracy. Few today would argue for going back to the days, as recently as 1985, when 90 percent of Congress was white and male. Few today would defend our paltry level of women’s representation—18 percent in Congress and 27 percent in California — as right or fair or just.
Yet there are also good practical reasons to put more women in office. Female legislators have been proven to be at least as effective as male legislators. Moreover, the research is unequivocal: the more women in office, the more laws that are passed advancing gender equality, such as paid family leave and universal child care. Many studies have shown that female legislators engage in greater collaboration and consensus building. By empowering more women in government, we could very well get more responsive and more functional government in the bargain.
Despite enormous effort to nudge up the the number of women in office, why are we stuck?
The problem isn’t sexism, or a lack of qualified female candidates, or voters.
Too few women hold elective office because our electoral system favors incumbents, and the vast majority of incumbents are men.
In the most recent general election, 90 percent of incumbent male and female candidates for Congress won reelection, and all but two incumbent California Assembly members won their reelection bids. (Both were competing in redrawn districts.) In the history of the United States, 11,813 men and 294 women have served in Congress.
We can’t exactly wait for half the politicians in Sacramento to quit their jobs, all for the cause of women’s equality. Instead, we can acknowledge that our electoral system is the source of our gender disparity and enact new reforms to change the face of California government. That’s where doubling the number of legislators, creating two-member districts, and — the linchpin of the proposal—adopting a 50-50 gender quota for each district’s seats come in.