As American politics devolves further toward a level beneath the dignity of professional wrestling, I wonder if it’s partly because women are playing less of a role in politics. My suspicion is that women just have better things to do with their lives, although I learned long ago not to draw any conclusions about women.
Their diminishing political presence is seen at federal, state and local levels. In Congress, the decline has been only slight, down from 90 women members last year to 89 in this 112th Congress. Until this year, an encouraging trend toward gender equality was in force, and another of my presumptions is that this shift gained momentum in 1981.
Last Thursday marked the 30th anniversary of President Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor as Supreme Court justice. She was confirmed unanimously by the Senate less than three months later. Within 12 years, the number of women in Congress more than doubled, to 54. In another 16 years, by 2009, the number of women in Congress had reached that record 90. Those 90 women included more than three times as many Democrats (69) as Republicans (21). Draw your own conclusions about that.
In recent weeks, unfortunately, we haven’t see women wielding strong influence in major arguments about how and if the debt ceiling should be raised. A Thursday story about the main participants in debt-reduction negotiations listed five men and one woman. Would the talks be so contentious if they included five women and one man?
Our state’s role in Congress experienced a slight change with last year’s election of Jaime Herrera Beutler to replace Brian Baird as representative for the 3rd Congressional District. Washington now has four women in Congress (two senators, two representatives) for the first time since 2005.
Certainly, women have gained great power in some political aspects of our state, the first state where the governor and both senators all are female. As I reported in a Dec. 9 column, in the past 14 years Chris Gregoire, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell collectively are 9-for-9 in winning elections. And in the past 18 years, they’re 12-of-13.
Men dominate Legislature
But the influence of women is declining in state-level politics. In the Legislature, the number of women has dropped steeply in the past decade, from a record 60 (40.8 percent of the Legislature) in 2000 to just 46 (31.3 percent) this year. There haven’t been that few women serving in Olympia in 20 years. And in statewide executive offices, other than Gregoire, no woman is serving in the eight other positions.
A similar decline in the presence of women is seen at the local level. As Andrea Damewood reported in a March 22 Columbian story, only 10 women are serving among 52 city councilors and county commissioners in Clark County, and that number is down from 19 just five years ago. (Full disclosure: The Columbian’s editorial board includes four men and one woman.)
The argument here is not that women are better decision-makers than men. The argument is that better decisions are made when more perspectives are included. As the retired former Justice O’Connor once said, “We don’t accomplish anything in this world alone … and whatever happens is the result of the whole tapestry of one’s life and all the weavings of individual threads … .” O’Connor also noted about her role on the high court: “The power I exert on the court depends on the power of my arguments, not on my gender.”
What might have happened if such an attitude had guided the recent negotiations about deficit reduction and raising the debt ceiling? Would those talks have been so bitter and partisan if more women had been involved? Instead, we have some irrational Democrats refusing to consider any changes in social-programs spending, some irrational Republicans refusing to consider reducing tax breaks for the wealthy, and each side accusing the other of being irrational. And for neither the first nor last time, leaders of both political parties wonder why so many Americans remain independent.
My unscientific explanation for political stubbornness: It’s a guy thing.
John Laird is The Columbian’s editorial page editor. His column of personal opinion appears each Sunday. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.