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Opinion

Opinion | Swanee Hunt

More women are needed in Congress

Political strategists say that women are critical to the Democrats’ strategy for retaining control of the Senate. But now, more than ever, women of both parties have a good reasonto run — not for cover, but for office — because huge majorities of Americans say we’d be better off with more women in the political system.

Women seem to be heeding this call, with a record number of female Democrats running for US Senate this year, in part because their relative absence from the halls of power has been so noticeable.

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So many critical issues that once felt settled have been raised as fresh fodder. Back in February, Representative Darrell Issa sparked a firestorm when he blocked Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke from testifying before a hearing about religious freedom and a mandate that health insurers cover contraception. The image from the hearing reminded too many of us of 1991, when lawyer Anita Hill testified to sexual harassment by Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas before Joe Biden’s all-male Senate Judiciary Committee.

The picture from Issa’s hearing hit the front pages and went viral. Women around the country were wide-eyed. How could they be shut-out of a hearing about birth control? But there’s another chapter in this grim tale: If Fluke had testified, she would have faced 40 members of the House Oversight Committee: 36 men and four brave women.

A poll by the non-partisan group Political Parity confirms that an overwhelming majority of American voters believe that adding more women will improve the way Congress functions. A whopping 74 percent say it’s a big deal; merely eight percent say we’d be worse off with more women. The data break along gender and party lines: Twice as many Democrats as Republicans say it matters and roughly twice as many women as men — in either party.

Huge majorities of Americans say we’d be better off with more women in the political system.

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Many of us have spent years striving to increase the number of women in Congress and decades experiencing on-the-ground effects of too few women in positions of power. The national frustration with Congress is simmering; approval ratings hover around 10 percent. Meanwhile, women grow increasingly exasperated with a legislature that ignores their priorities. This creates an urgency to expand the ranks of women in the House and Senate.

Only 17 percent of Congress is female and that number has stagnated. Worldwide we’re an ignoble 90th or so in women’s parliamentary representation, far behind countries like Rwanda, Cuba, Kosovo, Nicaragua, and Vietnam.

So what? In aggregate, women are more partial to non-hierarchical collaboration and consensus building — all attributes that could loosen the corrosive gridlock we’ve seen in Congress. Women get more bills passed, have more co-sponsors, and are considered more accessible by their constituents.

But women also bring a more subtle difference to policy-making: a new perspective. It took Representative Louise Slaughter in the 1990s to reveal that the National Institutes of Health was conducting clinical trials on white men and simply projecting effects onto women and minorities, ignoring critical biological differences. Years later, it’s Republican and Democratic women on the Hill working across the partisan divide to insist on Afghan women’s inclusion in decisions about their future — including peace talks with the Taliban. From women’s health to war and peace, sensible, sustainable policy requires a table with more chairs than those taken by the good ol’ boys.

Will the nation see this as our time to elect more women? The 11 Democrats and 11 Republican women running for US Senate are doing their part to increase the ranks. We have the power to flood the political system, fueled by our discouragement and energized by our hope. At this low level, it’s time.

Swanee Hunt is the former US ambassador to Austria, president of Hunt Alternatives Fund and a lecturer in public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

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