Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Thirty Percent Solution

The fierce debate on comments threads further down this blog made me read this blog post on the 30% solution. The idea is to get enough women elected into the Congress, whatever their political views and platforms, to make the total number of women at least thirty percent. That way women's issues will not be neglected in the work of the Congress. As evidence of this it's possible to point out the work legislative organs do in countries where women have indeed reached that critical mass (which may or may not be 30%) where it's no longer possible to ignore them.

On the face of it this proposal isn't that different from the work Emily's List and other similar organizations do. They all try to get more women elected so that our legislative institutions better reflect the actual population proportions of women and men. But the 30% solution is actually something much more radical: It advocates voting for women over men even when the women are anti-feminists in their beliefs and platforms, even when they advocate banning almost all forms of abortion, even when they might be opposed to federal parental leave or the right of women to sue employers or schools for sex discrimination.

If I understand the idea correctly, the 30% solution would encourage me to vote for Ann Coulter if she ran for office, despite the fact that she'd prefer to see women's suffrage abolished, because she is a woman and her presence would make women's issues of greater concern to the Congress. I don't think Ann Coulter cares about women's issues at all. If thirty percent of the Congress consisted of Ann Coulter clones women would be in deeper trouble than now.

It is certainly true that more women in politics are needed. But what those women stand for is also important. The countries which have at least thirty percent women in their legislative houses are rarely countries with a strong anti-woman fundamentalist minority of the type the United States has. Thus, those thirty percent blocs don't have many women whose mission in government appears to coincide with the mission of the Aunties in Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale: to keep other women under patriarchal control. The 30% solution seems to encourage all women to vote for the Aunties, just because they are women. It's as if their gender alone would make them sensitive to women's rights.

There is a sense in which a thirty percent bloc of women (any women) in the Congress would almost automatically reduce sexism, but it's not in the legislative arena. Rather, as Virginia Valin points out in her book Why So Slow, once women stop being a small minority among the job applicants for a particular job, say, they also stop being seen first as women and only second as the workers with the necessary skills for the job. Having more female politicians changes the image of "a politician" people have and is likely to make the treatment of individual women fairer in Congress.

Now, that would be nice. But not nice enough for me to root for the Aunties.