Friday, November 12, 2010

Why 2010 WAS the Year of the Woman

* Post originally published at Fem2.0
In the aftermath of the midterm elections, as Democrats huddle in a corner to lick their wounds, feminists have spent their time and column space railing against the pre-election notions that 2010 was going to be "Year of the Woman: Part II".  While a record number of women ran for Congress this year - 262 in the House of Representatives and 36 in the Senate - fewer women will come to Washington.  With a few races still too close to call, it appears that female representation in 
Washington will remain about 17%.  For all the talk, you'd think the 2010 elections were a travesty for the women's movement.
Don't get me wrong.  It's an appalling statistic, an embarrassment to the cause and to the country as we grapple with being ranked 73rd in the world for female representation in the lower House.  But the idea that the 2010 midterm elections forced women to take two steps back and one to the side is too short-sighted and narrow for everything the feminist movement is trying to accomplish.
The truth is that women benefit enormously from having positive female role models. And when women run for office, the women's empowerment movement takes a step forward.  I'm confident that consultants, experts, and pundits alike would agree with me on this one: it's virtually impossible to win an election if you don't run.
If anything, the vast number of women who are running for federal office and losing should be inspiring to other women.  Ok, sure, it'd be better if they'd won their races and could actually go to Washington to shape policy as Members of Congress.  However, proving to women all over the country that it's ok to run and lose is a powerful lesson that we also need to learn.
In the past few decades, as women have taken up careers and juggled the housework and child-rearing all at once, there's been an enormous pressure for us to be able to "do it all."  Women are held to extraordinarily high standards.  Particularly as we are still seen to be the exception instead of the rule, female leaders are scrutinized to an absurd extent as our every move, blink, phrase, outfit, and decision are judged as part of the overall conversation on "Can Women Lead?"  Faced with that kind of pressure, the risk of losing an election can be the deciding factor in a long list of reasons not to run for office.
But this year, a record number of women ran for Congress. Personally, I view that as a win for the women's movement.  In the past, female candidates on the losing end of Election Day have often continued to have great careers.  Jennifer Lawless, Director of American University's Women & Politics Institute, and Siobhan Bennett, CEO of the Women's Campaign Forum, are two great examples of women who lost Congressional elections and went on to become powerful voices in their field.
In its 2008 report on Benchmarking Women's Leadership, the White House Project stated that "women candidates, from mayors like Shirley Franklin of Atlanta to presidential candidates like Hillary Clinton, have reported anecdotally that everywhere they travel, women tell them how their campaigns were an inspiration to get involved in politics-and beyond that, to try new challenges in their own lives."  It wasn't their electoral victories, it was their campaigns that were inspiring.  The fact that they were running in the first place.
Women didn't win enough seats to name 2010 "Year of the Woman: Part II" as so many pundits and writers had wanted.  But that depends on how you define the Year of the Woman.  Personally, I'm inspired by the record number of women who ran ambitious and aggressive campaigns this year to serve in the United States Congress.  I can't wait to see what all of them do next.

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