Lack of women in legislature a symptom, not a sickness

Published 7:26 am Sunday, December 4, 2016


The Advocate-Messenger

The Kentucky House of Representatives will look very different next year, as new Republican leaders take over and chart a new course for the lower chamber, which had previously been under the control of Democrats for close to a century.

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It’s a promising time for Republicans and their priorities. Based on the initial rhetoric of the incoming leaders, there’s also hope for a less divisive, more inclusive House that is willing to consider ideas from all sides.

The change in leadership is also resulting in a substantial amount of influence landing on local representatives Jonathan Shell and David Meade, who represent the 71st and 80th districts respectively.

One thing that won’t change with the new House, however, is the lack of female representatives. In the current House, women fill 18 of the 100 seats. In 2017, that number will rise by one to 19, thanks in part to Republican Kimberly Poore Moser filling a currently vacant seat.

The number of women in majority leadership positions will change from one to zero.

Women make up more than half of Kentucky’s population, according to Census data, but hold fewer than one in five representative seats. In the Senate, the rate is even lower — four of the 38 seats, or about 10.5 percent are held by women.

But it would be foolish to blame the members of the House and Senate for these discrepancies. Each of them was elected appropriately by the voters in their districts. No one went around actively preventing women from seeking office or rigging elections in favor of men.

In fact, it would be foolish to throw blame around at all. You don’t blame the thermometer when it’s freezing outside; we shouldn’t blame our elected officials for not being women. Having too few elected women is an effect, not a cause. And no one can say with real confidence exactly what the cause is.

Men still have many unfair advantages in the business world. Women are still criticized more than men if they act confident or bossy — codewords like “overbearing” and “emotional” get applied to women for exhibiting the same characteristics described as “self-possessed” and “exacting” in men.

Women may genuinely have less interest in holding elected office. Or there may be a feedback effect where young women don’t see as many females in elected positions and so don’t pursue politics.

But it doesn’t do any good to point fingers at business leaders, religious doctrines or any of the other favorite scape goats for inequality. Pointing fingers only puts people on the defensive and results in them pointing fingers elsewhere. And it often means people with plenty of good qualities are demonized for a few mistakes.

We can’t just pass a law requiring more women in the legislature. That’s not how a representative democracy works.

Voters are the ones who give elected officials their jobs. Voters are the ones responsible for who their elected officials are. Change can’t come from anywhere else.

But voters can also only vote for whoever is on the ballot. If their only options are men — and in many districts, that’s the case, the only men will get elected.

Changing the legislature in this regard requires a bigger, more systemic change in how society treats women.

As responsible constituents, we should acknowledge the fact that women do not serve as big a role as they should in the leadership of our government. And we should acknowledge that discrimination against women in the world outside of government certainly doesn’t help the situation. Then we can work to identify and correct discrimination as we encounter it in our lives.

If we successfully change our cultural climate, we’ll see the thermometer of the state legislature adjust accordingly.