Jewish Journal

The U.S.A.: Are We Open to Change?

by Maya Paley

December 11, 2012 | 2:07 pm

While I was ecstatic that more women were elected to the 113th Congress than any previous election period, I was equally frustrated by another piece of news that I read about this week:
“The House Republican Steering Committee announced an all-male slate of committee chairs, including 12 returning lawmakers who will head up some of the most important panels in Washington.”

There you have it: You get a glimpse of progress only to realize that you are prematurely rejoicing. Getting more women into Congress is a step, but we recall that we are nowhere near equal representation in our government, and we definitely do not hold the positions of power within the power system.

At a risk of offending some, I would like to bring up the infamous electoral quota system. Did you know that half of the world’s countries have implemented electoral quotas for their parliaments?

This means that there is a specific number of ensured seats in government for women. In some countries it’s 50%, in others it’s a minimum of 30%. Either way it’s better than our miserable 17% in the current Senate and our applauded increase to 18% in 2013.

In graduate school I studied economic and political development. The program drilled into my brain that there is no universally effective blueprint that will help all countries develop. Similarly, there is no blueprint for ending gender discrimination worldwide. I believe that my graduate school colleagues will agree with me, however, that sometimes trying something new does work, or at least if you learn from trial and error.

The United States is a country that loves playing the hero in international aid. We loan out tons of money, provide grant assistance, and send aid workers to other countries. We love consulting everyone else on what they should be doing. What we don’t usually do is look around to see if anyone else has a good idea that might help us.

Drude Dahlerup, a professor of Political Science from Stockholm University in Sweden, explains a concept called “equality of result,” arguing that “real equal opportunity does not exist just because formal barriers are removed. Direct discrimination and a complex pattern of hidden barriers prevent women from being selected as candidates and getting their share of political influence. Quotas and other forms of positive measures are thus a means towards equality of result.”

Why are we so afraid of electoral quotas in the U.S.?

For one, we fear the unknown, the other, and the government. Some people see the quota system as an example of the government trying to meddle in our democratic rights. Some fear what would occur if more women were in power. But democracy is more than just voting for your representative. It’s about representation of all members of society. With half of the population struggling to get elected, afraid of running in the first place, and not even getting positions of power when they do get elected into office, representation and equal rights are obviously not leading us to “equality of result.”

We must open ourselves up to discussions about our political system and how it can be improved or adjusted in line with the changing times. It does not have to be an electoral quota for women, but we need real and quick progress that goes beyond the slight gains we made in the 113th Congress. We need change that reflects who we think we are: a country that values women equally as it does men.  I’m no longer sure that the 113th Congressional gains are as promising and newsworthy as I originally thought and I continue to wonder: Are we open to change?

For a listing of the quota systems in place in countries throughout the world and the percentage of women elected into their legislatures, visit http://www.quotaproject.org/country.cfm.

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Maya Paley is Director of Legislative and Community Engagement at the National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles. The programs she works on include the annual Jewish...

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