Articles by Claire Guthrie Gastañaga
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Playing on the Women's Team: 'She Wins -- You Win' in the Political Context
RichmondWOMAN, Vol. 1, Issue 9, August/September 2004, pp. 12-14

I don’t believe in coincidences, and when both a panel discussion of Gail Evans’ book, She Wins – You Win: The Most Important Strategies for Making Women Powerful and a meeting of the board of directors to finalize the dissolution of Make Women Count occurred in the same week, I decided that I should think about what the concurrence of these two events might mean for Virginia women in politics and in government.

Make Women Count was founded in 1992 as a bi-partisan “grass roots political organization dedicated to assuring women a strong voice in Virginia government.”  Its purpose was to advocate issues of concern to all women as reflected in the Virginia Women’s Agenda.  To carry out this purpose, Make Women Count advocated legislation and also raised and spent money to help elect women to the Virginia General Assembly regardless of party affiliation.  The organization’s vision recognized that although there are certainly issues that divide us, there are also many issues on which women can agree.

Discussed at a recent forum sponsored by SmartConnect, the Richmond Women’s Business Consortium, Gail Evans’ She Wins – You Win’s central theme is that there is really only one rule (for women in business): “Every woman must always play on the women’s team.”  “Why,” she asks?  “Because every time any woman succeeds in business, your chances of succeeding in business increase.  And every time a woman fails in business, your chances of failure increase.”  According to Evans, women need to understand and accept that women will only succeed in business if they succeed together. The same is true for women in politics and in government.

Fourteen years after Make Women Count’s founding, the vision of women coming together for common purpose is largely unrealized. The General Assembly has fewer female members than at any time since 1995, and not enough women are invested in Make Women Count to support its continued existence.  The reason for this is the same reason why Evans’ says equity in pay and position eludes women in the American workplace even though women now constitute nearly half of all workers: too many women are not willing to build and to play on “the women’s team.”

It is easy to say that Make Women Count foundered over the last couple of years in the increasingly partisan sea of Virginia politics – that politics in Virginia has become so polarized and so divided by party that any bipartisan organization must necessarily sink. The reality, however, is that there are plenty of other organizations working across party lines to achieve a common agenda, (e.g., chambers of commerce, environmental groups, people who want a major league baseball team in Virginia, to name just a few).  What sunk Make Women Count in large part was that women had trouble putting women’s political success ahead of issues or party. As Evans says, women simply had “trouble banding together in ways that create power” or they could not admit, “By banding together, we are more likely to succeed.”

Make Women Count was about bringing women together to talk about and advocate for policies that help women and their families and to elect more women to public office.  Make Women Count was not an organization working against men; it was for women.  Nonetheless, from the outset, both women and men criticized Make Women Count for “excluding men.”  Helping only women get elected wasn’t “fair,” some said. 

Evans addresses the analogous problem in business: men (and women) attack women who reach out to help other women in business.  She writes about a woman who quit her job because she didn’t see a chance of advancement.  One of the woman’s male bosses routinely gave the best assignments to his three favorite protégés (all men), but the top woman at the company refused to do the same for her or other qualified women.  When asked why, Evans says, the woman boss answered:  “That would be wrong.” 

At a major Washington law firm where I once worked, I heard similar arguments against getting female summer associates together with female attorneys, while men in the firm went to lunch together at the all-male club down the street or played softball in an all-male league in the evenings.  Some women attorneys and summer associates in the firm said that we should not get the women together because we needed to set an example of inclusiveness.  So, the idea died.  In my experience, however, the reality is the one Evans’ describes: by playing “fair” when the men may not be doing the same, women don’t change the way men play, they simply disadvantage women.  Similarly, when men are investing in and supporting mostly male political protégés and candidates, we cannot be so naïve as to think that this reality will change if women simply exhibit a more egalitarian approach ourselves.

The other argument against Make Women Count’s focus on building the women’s team was that men would give women power if we just worked hard enough and proved that we deserved it by supporting them.  As Evans says, many women seemed to think that if we pointed out the disparities in political representation and in leadership and if we discussed the unfairness of the fact that 52% of the population is represented by less than 20% of the legislature often enough, “the men [would] wake up one day and say, ‘Hey, these girls really are entitled to more power.’” 

The fact is that power is not a commodity that people give away.  Evans reminds us that women did not get the vote because men gave it to us; we got it because women were willing to fight hard, stand outside the White House and endure taunts and assaults and go to jail.  Evans says:  “You only get power if you usurp it.  People take power.” 

Make Women Count was about taking political power for women and making political “rain” for women candidates.  Just as in the workplace, this philosophy made both men and women uncomfortable.  In addition, it was complicated by the fact that, as Evans acknowledges, women and men approach rainmaking differently.  Women default to “Who is the best person I can find?” and they rarely think of the best person as a woman. Men default to “Whom do I want to do this?” and they usually think of a man in this role.

I once asked a meeting of nearly 75 women attorneys, “How many of you have referred business to another attorney in the last six months?  Almost all present raised their hands.  Asked how many had referred business to another female attorney in the last six months, fewer than ten women in the room raised their hands. “If the women in this room are not sending business to other women attorneys in this room (or outside it),” I said, “I can guarantee you that the men aren’t either. They’re sending business to other men.” 

Similarly, if women are not willing to contribute to and vote for women candidates, men are unlikely to do so, either.  Evans argues that, “it’s time for women to hire other women” in business.  It is also time for women to “hire” women running for office by sending them money and giving them our vote. 

Make Women Count also failed in part because too many women listened to and seemed to fear inciting the argument that when women band together to support women running for office, we look like “militant feminists,” who not interested in electing the “best person.”  Evans is right about one important step that all women need to take in business and in politics:  we have to stop worrying about what people (particularly, men) think and also about being perceived as “self-serving.”

We also must heed Evans’ advice not to allow “men to divide and conquer us.”  Women need to resist actively being used as tools by men who want to undercut the power or election prospects of other women regardless of party or position.  In the world of politics and government, as in Evans’ business world, “women are seen as a group.”  When women participate in criticizing other women, or worse yet, allow themselves to be the mouthpiece for men trying to undercut another woman’s power or position, they only perpetuate stereotypes that, in the long run, come back to hurt their own chances for success. 

We need to understand Evans’ point that a woman’s criticism of another woman has a saliency that a man’s criticism would not.  A good political example of the special effectiveness of a woman’s criticism was an ad run during the 1993 gubernatorial campaign in Virginia in which well-known author Patricia Cornwell said about then-candidate Mary Sue Terry that Virginia needed a woman governor but not “this woman.”

Make Women Count was about building a women’s team.  The organization may be gone, but the need remains.  I took away these political lessons from reading Evans’ book while thinking about Make Women Count’s demise:

If we want women to have power in government, women must work together to elect more women, even if it means defeating or not supporting some of our friends who are men.  Women who are elected need to “play on the women’s team.” 

Elected and appointed women need to work together to help other women get elected and heard rather than concentrate solely on proving how well they can play on the men’s team.  

As Evans says, the more women help each other, “the more we will all move toward greater success;” and, if we don’t help each other, “we all take a step backwards.”  Looking at the statistics, backwards is where I am afraid we’re headed. (end)

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