Shutdown Political Barriers for Women…And Reap the Rewards

In an era of government distrust, political gridlock, and legislative dysfunction, women may be the power players who forge solutions and help address our nation’s most divisive problems, argues Swanee Hunt in a recent article in Global Post. Ms. Hunt is a Lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School and Chairwoman of Political Parity—an organization “dedicated to increasing the number of women serving in the highest levels of government.”

In the article entitled, “20 percent women, 100 percent effective,” Ms. Hunt argues that the recent crisis—involving a government shutdown and a threat of debt default—was resolved only after female Senators stepped up and became actively involved.

The article notes:

  Rather than commendation, these women sought resolution. Rather than settle scores, they sat down together. Rather than stick with their teams, they found common ground for common good. Fittingly, Senator Murkowski declared, “Politics be damned.” If we had more women in power, the senators have said, we would have avoided this multi-billion dollar shutdown and globally destabilizing game of chicken over the debt ceiling.

As Senators took to the floor of their chamber after a final deal was reached last Wednesday, there was a remarkable shift in rhetoric. The venom was gone. The snarky, biting “gotcha” lines were tucked away. Instead, Senators praised the agreement and shined the political spotlight on the dedication and toil of women like Susan Collins (R-ME), Patty Murray (D-WA), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), and others. Senators from both political parties, East coast and West coast, large state and small, conservatives and liberals, long-serving barons of Capitol Hill and wide-eyed freshmen were united by two common characteristics: a desire to solve a serious policy problem and their gender.

Swanee Hunt’s piece is notable for another reason. It is not simply a back-patting review of women’s role in policy negotiations. She highlights the argument with important social science research that illustrates her point. Rather than standing on a single anecdote to heap praise on women Senators, Ms. Hunt highlights Political Parity’s recent study, “Twin States: A Multiplier Effect.” The study examines trends at the state level that influence women’s likelihood to rise to positions of power and more specifically, hold state-wide elected office.

In all, the study and the discussion of the recent budget agreement highlight a few critical points about women in politics. First, there remain serious limitations to gender parity in the halls of political power—not just in Washington, but at the state level. Second, while some states have made great advances in electing women to power, many states fall woefully behind. Third, women in positions of power have serious and noticeable effects on policy making, political discourse, and the function of legislative institutions. Taken together, success at breaking the glass ceiling will likely crumble the granite walls that too often separate problems from their solutions.