Explorations on Women (Not) Running for Office – Part 3

By Rylee Sommers-Flanagan

Over the last two weeks, Rylee explored what it means to be both an academic and everyday feminist and discussed her own research in the context of other scholarly work. This week she focuses on the implications of real women in political office.

By now, it might be obvious that I want more women to run for office. However, when I express that wish without qualifications or conditional addendums, it may be misleading – especially because I am writing so openly as a feminist with clearly defined politics.

So now I am going to qualify that statement: Seriously, I want more women, of all sorts, to run for office. No, I do not mean only liberal women, or only white women, or only straight women, or even only rich women. I mean more of all types of women.

Political representation is complicated. Hanna Pitkin, a professor at UC Berkeley, developed the basic framework we use today to understand political representation from four basic perspectives. As it pertains to women running for office, I will focus on only two of Pitkin’s views of representation: descriptive and substantive representation.

Pure descriptive representation occurs when a political body actually resembles its constituents. If this were perfectly implemented in the United States, there would be 51 women in the Senate and 14 black people. The idea is that there should be proportional representation that actually describes the whole population. In reality, 17 women and zero black people serve in the Senate.

Substantive representation suggests that elected representatives can act on behalf of the represented, even without resembling them or their experience. The textbook example is the wealthy and white Teddy Kennedy as a substantive representative of the poorest Americans’ interests.

Similarly, men can act as substantive representatives of women’s interests. As it turns out, women are not always substantive representatives of all women’s interests, as when the Paycheck Fairness Act failed in part because Republican women voted along Republican lines with corporate rather than women’s interests. The point is not that Republicans and Democrats disagree, but that elected women are not always substantive representatives of women before all else. Sometimes they represent business, or the environment, or the military first, just as elected men do. Being a woman does not inherently make feminism priority number one.

And really, women shouldn’t be limited to “women’s issues.” When women or men run for office, it should be because they believe in the power of the system, because they are sincere in their desire to serve, and because enough people have faith that they will serve with grace and integrity. People like Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD and the longest-serving female senator) are actively involved in areas not traditionally deemed “women’s areas.” She has served on the Subcommittee on Defense and the Select Committee on Intelligence as well as on committees related to the elderly, labor, and commerce. People are often unpredictably talented.

Jane Mansbridge, a political scientist at Harvard, tentatively suggests that descriptive representation does promote substantive representation. And I understand why she’s tentative – as feminists, the whole point is gaining better representation of women’s interests, and the Phyllis Schlafly types just don’t do it for us.

But this is not a zero-sum game. So why shouldn’t we have descriptive and substantive representation?

We should.

First, women and men can be great feminists together; we should vote for substantive representation because it’s what we value.

Second, we must work for greater diversity in our government. When young women consider which women to admire in our government, more options are better than fewer options (and good options are even better). As Rosabeth Moss Kanter reported in the American Journal of Sociology in 1977, greater diversity means more legitimate government and less polarization of “token” women or minorities. And it has been demonstrated that more diverse, descriptive representation yields more effective and sustainable decision-making in a variety of arenas.

We can support substance first. But in this support, let’s not lose sight of diversity and why it matters.

Rylee Sommers-Flanagan graduated from Emory University in May 2011, with a BA in International Studies. She will be pursuing an MLitt in Creative Writing from the University of St. Andrews in the fall.

To support women running for office, check out the following fabulous organizations:

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