Articles by Claire Guthrie Gastañaga
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"The View from the Balcony":  Advocating for Women in Politics
UVA Lawyer (Winter 1997)

When I was at the Law School in the early 1970s, I used to stand on the balcony overlooking the reading room in the old Clark Hall library when I needed to find a friend to go get a cup of coffee or take a study break. Looking down on row after row of men, it was often difficult to pick out a particular male colleague, but it was always easy to find a particular woman among the one woman in 12 students then represented in the student body.

Not too long ago, standing in the gallery looking down over the House of Delegates of the Virginia General Assembly, I was disquieted by the similarity of the two pictures. Rows and rows of neutral-toned, suited men punctuated by occasional dots of color (women politicians are counseled carefully that red is a power color; blue makes one accessible-- both stand out in contrast to charcoal or navy blue). And, just as I knew in the early 70s that the existence of a critical mass of women students at the Law School would affect the legal education offered, I know now, from intuition, experience and data, that the existence of a critical mass of women in any legislative or other policy-making body influences what happens there.

For example, a 1991 study by the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University found that the increased presence of women in state legislatures has an impact that is evident regardless of the party, ideology, feminist identification, constituency, seniority, age, or political insider status of the women who are elected. Women legislators are more likely than their male colleagues to give top priority to public policies related to their traditional roles as care givers, issues dealing with children, education, environment, aging, families, and health care. [Reshaping the Agenda: Women in State Legislatures, Center for the American Woman and Politics (1991)].

Women legislators, in my experience, also are more likely to consider the effects of any policy on women and children. A recent example of this in Virginia is the overwhelming support among women legislators (and ultimately, among their male colleagues) for assuring direct access to obstetricians and gynecologists for women in managed care plans.

Yet, despite proclamations of 1992 as the Year of the Woman and similar informal celebrations, women remain underrepresented at most levels of government in most states. In 1996, 21 percent of all state lawmakers nationwide are women. In Virginia, the percentage of women lawmakers is 15.0. Eight of the ten states with the lowest percentages of women state legislators are southern states including Tennessee (13.6 percent), Louisiana (11.1 percent), Kentucky (8.0 percent), Alabama (3.6 percent) and South Carolina (12.4 percent). The highest ranking state is Washington, where women make up 40 percent of the legislative body [Center for the American Woman and Politics]. Nationally, on the eve of the 1996 elections, women held eight percent of the seats in the U.S. Senate-- a record number-- including five Democrats and three Republicans representing seven states. The number of women in the House is 48 or 11 percent of the total. In 1995, 83 women held statewide elective office (25.6 percent of the 324 available positions), but the number of women governors dropped from four to one in 1994 and only increased to two following the 1996 elections [Center for the American Woman and Politics and State Legislatures, February 1995]. This underrepresentation can mean that there is no woman at the table when important public policies are debated. In Virginia, only one woman serves on the House Courts of Justice Committee that considers legislation including child support, domestic relations, family violence, juvenile justice, sexual assault, abortion restrictions, and tort reform. There is only one woman on Virginia’s House Rules Committee and no woman on the Senate Finance Committee that determines Virginia’s spending priorities.

In addition, when Virginia adopted a comprehensive prison reform bill in 1994, there was no woman on the joint legislative conference committee that wrote the final bill, and no woman among the many staff members of the Governor’s and the Attorney General’s offices who were involved in the drafting process. Whether prevention issues would have received greater prominence in the discussion if there was any significant involvement by women in the policy debate is anyone’s guess, but experience suggests that, at a minimum, the tenor of the debate might have been different.

In all but a few states, the problem of underrepresentation remains partly because fewer women choose to seek public office. Although the number of women candidates is increasing, there continue to be real and perceived barriers to their candidacies. According to a poll commissioned by RENEW (the Republican Network to Elect Women), more than 22 percent of men say they have considered running for office, while only nine percent of women have.

Some women seem to feel they need some kind of special education or background to seek political office. Others are concerned about the impact of a political candidacy on their families. Women responding to the RENEW poll reported a “general cynicism of politics and the ‘old boys network’” and said they felt “ill prepared for the political front line” [RENEW, November 5, 1993]. Some women think they may have difficulty obtaining their party’s nomination. Although Republican women have fared “unusually well” in recent legislative races-- in 1994, they won 66 percent of their races, compared to 54 percent for Democratic women-- they make up a smaller proportion of their party’s legislators [State Legislatures, February 1995].

In my experience, most women are just as prepared to seek public office as most men now in office were when they first ran. Many women are more prepared than some men who choose to run because they have years of experience in public organizing and advocacy as volunteers or community activists or from years of volunteering in the campaigns of men. As Patricia R. Vance said, running for public office is one way to “trace your family tree.” And no candidate, woman or man, should consider becoming a candidate without the unequivocal support of his or her family.

Some women have hesitated to run because of a sense that voters are not supportive of women candidates-- particularly those who espouse so-called women’s issues. The reality here, however, seems to be that most women candidates start any campaign with some inherent advantages, like perceived honesty, compassion, and outsider status, and that women’s issues increasingly are attracting majority support at least among women voters.

No one could escape the focus on the so-called “gender gap” between women and men voters during the recent election cycle. Pundits and pollsters from conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh to Democratic pollster Celinda Lake commented frequently on the differences in the attitudes of and issues of concern to women and men (e.g., deficit reduction vs. tax reduction; government as a problem solver vs. government as the problem; prevention vs. punishment; and mediation vs. confrontation) and the impact these differences appeared to be having on candidate support. Some editorial writers decried the “feminization” of the Democratic party-- a description of both reported party identification and, increasingly, of issue emphasis by Democratic candidates.

Mr. Limbaugh went so far as to opine that the recognition in this election cycle that men as a group and women as a group appear to think differently about certain policy priorities and to vote differently based on those priorities is the ultimate evidence that “feminism” has failed. Apparently, Limbaugh defines “feminism” as the belief that men and women are identical; so, in his view, any acknowledgment of differences is a rejection of feminism. Frankly, I prefer Susan B. Anthony’s call to action: “Men, their rights and nothing more; women, their rights and nothing less.”

And, what clearer right should women have in our democracy than the right of majority rule? Women make up the majority of our population; women outnumber men among registered voters; and the number of women voters has exceeded the number of male voters in every presidential election since 1964 [Sex Differences in Voter Turnout, 1995 Fact Sheet, Center for the American Woman and Politics, Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University]. If, indeed, there are women’s issues, why shouldn’t “our issues” take precedence in any election cycle? And, who is better suited to articulate these issues than women candidates?

This is not to say that men cannot do a good and effective job of advocating for and legislating about issues of concern to women. They can. But, as Anna Quindlen has said, if you believe that “our political leaders don’t have a clue about real life, look for a woman. I've rarely met a woman who didn't know more about the supermarket, the bus stop, and the prevailing winds than her male counterparts.” And, it is these “real life” issues that increasingly drive the majority of the electorate.

Going back to my view from the balcony overlooking the House chamber in Virginia, it is interesting to note that while 39 of the 100 members of the Virginia House of Delegates are lawyers, only one of the 14 women serving in the House (and none of the seven women serving in the Virginia Senate) is a lawyer. Moreover, while 11 of the 39 lawyers in the House attended the Law School, the one woman lawyer did not.

Last winter David Baldacci ’86 wrote persuasively on these pages that graduates of our Law School need to “get in the game” and do what they can to “better the world” and “avert the apocalypse.” In a September letter and again in a speech in early October to those celebrating 75 years of women at the Law School, Dean Robert Scott talked about the role of the Law School in educating “citizen lawyers”-- lawyers who, in Dean Scott’s words, exemplify “Jefferson's idea”, “lawyers whose influence [is] largely felt outside their legal practices in the service they [provide] to the larger social and political community.” I encourage women graduates of the Law School to choose to exert their influence by getting in the political “game” of running for elective office or supporting actively the election of those women who do. There is much to be gained from their participation, and, perhaps, one day the view from the balcony will be very different (and much more colorful) than the view today.(end)

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