Roberts’ gender-based solution to bipartisanship flawed

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I didn’t attend Cokie Roberts’ January Series lecture, “An Insider’s View to Washington, D.C.,” because she is a woman. I attended hoping to hear the experience of a journalist whom I admire.

What I got was an intensely and unexpectedly feminist message, and what I took away was a notepad full of questions about feminism and the role of women in politics.

The title of Roberts’ lecture did not exactly express the real subject of her speech: bipartisanship. She spoke at length about her belief that Capitol Hill has become a place of such division that members of Congress no longer feel they can vote for what they actually believe in.

This isn’t news to anyone who followed the 2012 election. Or the fiscal cliff debates. Or the debt ceiling discussion. Or the healthcare bill. Or the approval of Superstorm Sandy financial relief. It’s popular these days for those who watch politics to rally around the cause of bipartisanship/across-the-aisle cooperation/simple civility — call it what you will. Citizens, commentators and many politicians themselves are practically begging Congress to set aside its differences and get things done. Roberts reported that 60 percent of voters in exit polls believed that the government should be acting with more frequency and impact.

This is all well and good. I’m for bipartisanship as much as the next person. Roberts presented several ideas for bridging the gap. “The way to fix this is voters,” she said. “We have to tell Congress that we will reward those who are civil and come together.”

Of course, media often affect how citizens vote. “People believe the loudest shouters,” said Roberts, and they tend to listen only to sources they already agree with. This is certainly not the way to encourage bipartisanship or understanding among voters, either.

The way our country is districted also contributes to the problem, according to Roberts.

Because of cleverly manipulated district lines, many Congressional seats today are almost guaranteed wins for the incumbents — as long as they vote along the party line.

Voters, the media and districting all contribute to division along party lines. But these were not Roberts’ main focus. Her most prevalent suggestion for improving bipartisanship had to do, surprisingly, with gender.

Roberts believes that partisanship today is in large part due to a lack of moderating influences in Washington. She told stories of First Lady Dolley Madison, who brought together party leaders over bottles of wine and simply insisted that they get along. The reason this worked for Dolley, it seems, is that she was a woman.

Women, reported Roberts, are more likely to cross party boundaries on issues they care about. In 1994, it was Republican women who put the vote to ban assault weapons over the top.

The problem, however, is that there are only 20 women in the Senate. “20 percent, great! We’re only 50 percent of the population,” Roberts quipped sarcastically. Women are still underrepresented in government, and Roberts thinks solutions like Dolley’s and that of the Republicans of 1994 are fewer and farther between.  Women are better at getting people to sit down quietly and have a civil discussion, so we need more of them in congressional seats, she argued.

I found myself nodding slightly as Roberts spoke. My inner feminist, which is cultivated and encouraged by much of my personal culture, was being indulged. Girl power, right? Women are rising up in the ranks, and should always be aiming to make up lost ground!

But a funny thing happened about halfway though Roberts’ speech — I began to doubt. Shouldn’t the role of women have changed since Dolley Madison became First Lady in 1809? I wondered. Is it really true that women are more nurturing, more communal and more cooperative than men? That’s certainly something society tells me. In one wave of feminism, I’m told to reject that stereotype. What gives them the right to put you in a box? that wave asks. But another wave, perhaps the one Roberts subscribes to, tells me to embrace that skill. It says I’m naturally better at those things, and that I’ve been nurtured to develop them. Why not use that power?

I get stuck somewhere in the middle. This is a tension in feminism that most women my age probably feel. It’s why we don’t label ourselves with waves. It’s why we want birth control to be covered by healthcare, but then want adequate maternity leave from our jobs. It’s why we sometimes feel feminism is a dirty word.

After her prepared speech, Roberts answered questions from the audience. A group of students watching from Lithuania asked, “What advice do you have for young women hoping to enter politics?” Roberts’ first answer was, simply, “Do it.” I nodded again. We certainly need more women in Congress — I agree that representation should parallel population. But Roberts’ second piece of advice was this:

“My advice for young women starting careers anywhere is work hard and be smarter than the guys — but that’s not hard.”

Laughter erupted in the auditorium. I’ll admit that I joined in. I followed the wave of feminism that told me the jab at men was funny, that they could take it. But afterward, with the prodding of a male friend who sat beside me, I realized this was a double standard. A man could never get away with saying such a thing, so why should a woman? Should anyone, male or female, have his or her intelligence insulted in such a way? The vengeful feminist that resides in me says they deserve it, but my humanist, compassionate side reminds me that nobody does.

I’d like to think that I am secure enough in my role as a woman to respect all people. I hope Cokie Roberts is, too.

Is getting more women in Congress really a solution to bipartisanship? I don’t think so. Cooperation and communication are not distinctly female characteristics. The ability to get along, to have civil discussions and to come together under a common goal are traits that all decent humans should share, regardless of gender. Why don’t we simply encourage humanity in Congress?

How can we be bipartisan if we’re divided across gender lines?

About the Author

Abby Zwart

Abby Zwart is the editor in chief of Chimes for the 2012-13 school year. She is a senior secondary education and English major. This is her fourth year on Chimes staff and second as editor in chief.

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