September 3, 2014

THROWDOWN THURSDAY: Where are the Women in Congress?

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Politically speaking, what happened this summer was fairly ordinary and unsurprising. Republicans got mad at President Barack Obama. Democrats got mad right back. Vladimir Putin was a bully towards Russia’s neighbors. There was an uptick in extremist violence in the Middle East. And, the Republicans were annoyed that a bunch of kids fleeing violence didn’t have the right papers. But, somehow, the least surprising revelation of the summer — even less surprising than the Israelis and Palestinians shooting rockets at each other — was that sexism is still prevalent in the political sphere.

This sexism was articulated most clearly by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) in her new memoir. Senator Gillibrand, one of the most ardent fighters against sexual harassment in the military, opened up about the sexual harassment that she herself faced in the halls of Congress. Even today — in what has been called the world’s greatest deliberative body — a woman can be treated as nothing more than a sexual object. Do her fellow Senators really respect her opinions when they say thingslike, “Don’t lose too much weight now. I like my girls chubby.”

While these comments should be utterly shocking and disappointing, can anyone really be surprised? In a body where four out of five members are men and the average member is 62 years old, it might actually be too much to expect a 21st century belief in women’s equality from them. And it’s doubtful that anything will change until more women are elected to Congress.

The relative scarcity of women in political life has a profound impact on our country. Looking at the policies passed by Congress and at the state level, it’s obvious that women get the short end of the stick. Organizations that provide critical health care to women, particularly Planned Parenthood, are targeted and shut down because of exaggerated conservative histrionics about abortion. Women are forced into uncomfortable and unnecessary medical procedures in attempts to dissuade them from making personal decisions about their medical care with their doctors. Maternity leave and paid family leave are almost non-existent anywhere in the country. And though60 percent of minimum wage workers are women, the minimum wage remains far too low.

Despite all of these pressing issues and more for women’s rights, the most discussed women’s issue of the summer was about birth control. In a five-to-four decision in the Hobby Lobby case, the Supreme Court said that the religious beliefs of corporate owners are more important than female employees’ access to the medications that they and their doctors want them to take. And in an entirely predictable course of events, all of the women on the Court sided with the healthcare rights of women.

The fact that our country is still debating how women should get access to contraception shows how backwards we really are. Access to affordable contraception is a fundamental part of any national healthcare policy, but, for at least one political party, the certainty of that fact is in doubt. When conservative politicians and commentators call contraceptives “dangerous” and call the women who use them “sluts,” it’s no wonder that women vote the way they do.

A critic of my view on Hobby Lobby would say that Justices Ginsburg, Kagan and Sotomayor ruled as they did not because they’re women, but because they’re liberals, but I think that those two propositions are not entirely independent. Eighty percent of women in the Senate and 76 percent of women in the House are Democrats. In 2012, President Obama won women voters by 11 points. Women have broadly rejected the Republican Party, and the Republicans have no real strategy to win back their votes.

But even though most women identify with and vote for the Democratic Party, they are still heavily underrepresented within the Party structure. About 30 percent of Congressional Democrats are women, which isn’t great, except when compared to the paltry eight percent of Congressional Republicans who are women. But things are looking up. About 150 women won either the Democratic or Republican nomination for the House or Senate this year, and the number of women in Congress will likely be higher next year than now. President Obama has appointedthe most women as judges out of any President. And, in just over two years, it’s very likely that a woman will be elected as President of the United States.

But in order to finally free the halls of Congress from the sexism that Senator Gillibrand experienced, more women have to get involved. Women need to stand up and make their voices heard, by running for office, by making sure that they vote, and by working and volunteering for the candidates that they support. I spent my summer working for Martha Robertson who is running for Congress this year to represent the district that includes Ithaca. And should she win in November, Congress will gain a powerful voice, not just for the women of this country, but for everyone.

And there’s no better time to get involved than while here at Cornell. There are so many organizations to be involved with, whether general political groups or any of the dozens of issue-based groups on campus. Making a difference begins with stepping up, and I hope that everyone will take that first step this fall.

Eric Pesner is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected] Dems Discuss appears alternate Thursdays this semester.