Remarks of Michelle D. Bernard before the National League of Cities
Congressional City Conference
Women in Municipal Government Membership Luncheon
I want to first thank you all for coming today and-much more importantly-for the work you do in cities throughout our country.
I understand, of course, why meetings and events like this take place in Washington, D.C.-most importantly, so that you can speak directly with your federal representatives and national lawmakers. But sometimes I wish that it would work in reverse-that we could send federal policymakers to cities throughout the nation so that they could get a better sense of the real challenges and problems you confront each day. Washington may seem like the center of the universe in the policy world, but we know that much of the real work of government and the decisions that have to be made that directly impact citizens take place on the local level.
And the challenges you face-that we all face-today are particularly grave. The global economic crisis has had, and will continue to have in the months and years ahead, an impact at every level of government, in every industry, and on just about every family. I know this is making your jobs particularly challenging as you struggle to find ways to meet increased need with decreased budgets.
I am particularly delighted to be speaking to a group of women who are on what I would call the front lines of government. It is certainly an interesting and exciting time to be a woman in the political arena.
It is easy to take for granted the amazing progress women have made and the opportunities that women have today to participate in politics. I know we often focus on statistics that make it seem as though the cup is more than half empty-for example, there are only 17 female Senators and 74 Representatives currently serving in Congress, and only 8 female Governors. But there is also a great deal of good news to consider when we think about where women are in terms of political power today.
Consider the last election. I truly believe that America’s political glass ceiling was shattered in 2008. I know that Hillary Clinton didn’t become president and Sarah Palin wasn’t elected vice president, but the fact that these women were out there and both came so close to reaching the top of the executive branch shows that it is really only a matter of time. I have no doubt that during my lifetime-and I bet sooner rather than later-the final barrier will be overcome and a woman will win the White House.
Just think of all the other milestones that have recently passed and now seem perfectly commonplace. We have Nancy Pelosi serving as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Hillary Clinton is Secretary of State, which seems like no big deal since she is following the tenure of Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine Albright before her. And while women’s numbers in elected office remain relatively low compared to our share of the population, it is worth noting that women routinely serve as Senators, Governors, and Representatives throughout all levels of government.
I also think that those eager for a woman in the White House should find comfort in Senator Obama’s victory. He has demonstrated that all Americans, regardless of the discrimination suffered by their ancestors, can win the highest prize in politics.
Now, this doesn’t mean that it was all good news for women in this last election. I believe the public and media’s treatment of then-candidates Clinton and Palin exposed some latent sexism and highlighted the unique challenges that women sometimes face when they run for office.
Consider some of the sexist remarks aimed at then-Senator Clinton during her campaign. There was the “gentleman” who held up a sign that read “Iron my shirt!” at a campaign event. The media made regular references to her cleavage and her “cackle.” One poster referred to her as “the nutcracker” while another featured her in a kitchen with the caption, “Where she really belongs.” One ad brazenly said “F Hillary. God knows she needs it.” Another campaign slogan proclaimed that, “Life’s a bitch so don’t vote for one.” And there was also the person who asked Senator McCain, “How do we beat the bitch?”
I dare say I don’t recall in modern presidential politics ever seeing a woman yell out or hold up a sign that reads, “Take out the trash!” or “Mow the lawn!” or “Ask for directions!” at a campaign event. And I certainly don’t recall any significant television or radio coverage of a male presidential candidate’s business attire, comb over, or over-sized belly.
Consider Governor Palin. Before she joined Senator McCain in this presidential campaign, she had clearly demonstrated that she was an accomplished politician. She had defeated the incumbent governor in her state’s primary and a former governor in the general election. She beat Alaska’s political establishment, learned the intricacies of the state’s dominant energy industry, and put her stamp on state government-all the while caring for a husband and five children.
Of course, there were serious substantive issues dividing the two tickets in the last election, all of which warranted a thorough and tough debate. Governor Palin had little experience on the federal level and little exposure to foreign policy. That topic deserved to be explored as she was in the race to be a heartbeat away from the presidency. Certainly Governor Palin was not a perfect candidate, and during the course of the campaign, important policy areas were revealed in which she had limited knowledge. But some of the attacks on Governor Palin were blatantly sexist cheap shots.
Consider some of the questions that she faced about her ability to be both a mother and vice president-questions which would never have been asked of a man even if he had a dozen children. Did anyone ever ask how Joe Biden could be a Senator after he lost his wife and daughter and had other children to raise? The scrutiny of her “lack of experience” was far greater than that of many male politicians who have run for president after just one term in Congress or one or two terms as a governor. And what about those who said, “My goodness, a conservative, red-state, free-market feminist isn’t really a woman.”
Some might even wonder whether the McCain campaign’s handling of Governor Palin reflected some latent sexism. It is clear that as she broke away from the bonds created by the campaign, she became a much better candidate.
I’m thankful that Senator Clinton and Governor Palin refused to fold under pressure. Even though their teams didn’t win, they are both glorious symbols of women’s progress. They both started important conversations about women in politics. I think that by the end of their respective presidential campaigns, most of America recognized that there was something unfair about the way they were both treated.
I don’t think this will mean that the next woman running for the White House won’t face sexism, but we will be more aware of it and ready to call it what it is. Senator Clinton’s and Governor Palin’s run and the awareness created of their stories-whether as a woman who ran after serving as First Lady and a US Senator or a woman who is leading her state even as she raises an active, large, and young family-helps break down lingering stereotypes about women.
I also think it’s important that during this process, Senator Clinton and Governor Palin demonstrated the many faces of feminism and defied another stereotype: the presumption that a feminist and career-oriented woman is a Democrat and a political liberal. Indeed, much of the venom spewed at candidate Clinton reflected a view that feminists are liberal Democrats who hate men and care only about issues such as sexism in the workplace. Much of the venom spewed toward candidate Palin reflected the frustration that a woman running for vice president was-gasp!-a conservative, free-market feminist.
You don’t have to agree with these positions to appreciate the importance of recognizing that women aren’t a political monolith. That presumption is, frankly, insulting.
In fact, women, no less than men, vary in their political opinions. Many women believe government should have a very limited role and that a free society that protects individual liberty, limited government, and rewards enterprise is the best path to prosperity for our country and security for our citizens. While we know that there are many women who consider themselves pro-choice, there are also many women who consider themselves pro-life feminists. Again, it’s fine to disagree with some or all of these opinions, but I hope we can agree there is no “right” position for women.
And just as we appreciate the diversity of our female representatives and celebrate women’s political achievements, I think it is also important to remember that it isn’t the gender-or the race for that matter-of a politician that matters. It’s their beliefs. It’s their record. It’s their vision for the country.
That’s what equality is about. I don’t want anyone to vote for a certain politician because she’s a woman any more than I would want someone to vote for a candidate because he is a man. That’s sexism, pure and simple. What I want is for women to have the opportunity to make their case to the public and be considered on their merits.
That’s why I don’t like to focus on the numbers game-to really celebrate if women increase their numbers in one election or become upset if they lose a few seats in another. Simply put, someone doesn’t have to be a woman or look like me to represent me well. And in fact, I know that some of my views are frequently better represented by some of our male politicians. Even groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW) recognize this: they supported the all-male ticket of Obama-Biden over McCain-Palin, since they disagreed with the latter on the issues. That’s exactly how it should be. Hopefully, as we get more women running for office, people will increasingly be able to cast their votes based on candidates’ merits and not think about whether it will achieve some kind of politically correct gender balance.
Truthfully, I don’t much care if women ever become fully half of our elected representatives. And, in fact, I would be surprised if the ranks of Congress are ever 50/50 and that’s not because I believe in intractable sex discrimination.
Research indicates women are sometimes less interested in the process of running for and holding office and they have other preferences for how to use their time and talents. The modern campaign process requires long hours under intense media scrutiny. Restrictions on fundraising make it necessary for candidates to continuously seek new sources of funding. For the time being, it appears that fewer women than men are willing to undertake these activities.
These are the differences that cause men and women to gravitate toward different careers so frequently. I know it makes some people uncomfortable, but reams of data show that men and women tend to have different priorities when it comes to their careers. Men tend to focus primarily on earnings, while a lot of women also place a priority on flexibility and personal fulfillment. Men take on some dirty, dangerous, and just plain distasteful jobs in order to earn more money: they are working in our sewers, driving trucks overnight, and guarding our prisons. Many women, on the other hand, tend to gravitate toward jobs that are safer, have more regular hours, and provide some sort of personal fulfillment: women make up the overwhelming majority of teachers and childcare workers, for example. I know there is a big debate about whether these differences are a result of nature or nurture-and I would argue that both factors contribute, but it doesn’t really matter what the reasons are, we need to respect an individual’s decisions about how best to spend their time.
That said, I do think the public should question whether our current political process is conducive to identifying and electing the best representatives-I doubt it is. I think our campaign finance laws, which make it so difficult and time consuming for candidates to raise money, discourage many potentially excellent candidates from seeking office. I wish our media would be a bit more introspective and consider the role that it plays. In fact, I think that’s a question for all Americans to ask themselves, since the media is just responding to the marketplace. Should we really continue to support magazines that focus only on trashy rumors about our public servants? Wouldn’t we be better off if we spent less time seeking scandal and more time discussing issues? I think that should be the focus as we review our political process: we want to create a system that encourages the participation of people who can best serve our country, regardless of gender.
Certainly, we should recognize this today. Our country is facing enormous challenges. I think just about everyone in America would agree that if there were a politician who could really help us break free of the current economic mess-get our deficits under control, encourage job growth, restore confidence in our financial sector-we wouldn’t care if it was a he or a she, or black, white, blue, or green for that matter!
This recession has truly spared no one. People are losing their jobs. Young people graduating college face a job market more dismal than any for a generation. Young families who have just bought homes are watching as an asset that they hoped would become the beginning of their nest egg turns into a huge financial liability; many now owe more than their home is worth. Retirees and those nearing retirement have watched a lifetime of savings slashed in half in a matter of a few months.
It’s interesting that women may reach a milestone as a part of this economic downturn-The New York Times reported last month that women are set to become the majority of workers in the United States. As notable as this is, it is hardly good news for women. In fact, according to the Times, the number of women hasn’t changed that much in recent months, but as we all know, there have been tremendous job losses, and men have borne the brunt of those layoffs-82 percent of job losses have been among men. That’s largely because the sectors that have been hardest hit in this downturn-such as construction and manufacturing-are dominated by men. Professions that women tend to dominate, such as education and healthcare, have been less effected and are generally more insulated from economic changes.
But women are hardly celebrating the losses experienced by men. The fact that women are the majority of workers means very little to families and women struggling to stay afloat in this economy. What the job losses mean is that many two-earner couples have suddenly become one-earner families, with the woman as the sole breadwinner. That means tremendous financial strain for the family and pressure for both the out-of-work man and the overworked woman.
That’s why, as we seek solutions to the current economic crisis, we shouldn’t be focused on whether we are creating “men’s” jobs or “women’s” jobs. Some women complained about early versions of the stimulus package based solely on this calculation. They thought it was unfair that the focus was going to be on infrastructure building and so-called “green” jobs because they were overwhelmingly male. But this really misses the point. What the economy needs are good jobs that contribute to long-term economic growth.
There is no issue in the immediate future that compares to the need to turn our economy around. Yet I do hope that as we pursue economic recovery, we keep in mind the broad principles that have made our country great in the past.
Foremost, we need to remember it is private markets, not government programs, which have made America the wealthiest nation on earth. Markets have been particularly important in enabling workers to care for their families and in providing opportunities for women entering the workforce.
I worry about some of the plans that have been presented in Congress that not only expand the size of government in terms of spending, but also expand the role of government for making decisions in our lives and dictating how our nation’s resources are spent. I share President Obama’s concern about areas like education, energy, and healthcare-but I don’t think that expanding the size and scope of the federal government is going to solve our problems. We need to be focused on unleashing the private sector, putting more control in the hands of parents and individuals, and making sure that our policies create the right incentives.
I’d welcome the opportunity to talk about any of these issues and hear some of the concerns that you face in your cities. Most of all, I want to thank you again for giving me the opportunity to talk to you today and for all the work you do across the country.
Michelle D. Bernard is the president and CEO of the Independent Women’s Forum and Independent Women’s Voice. Also, Bernard is author of Women’s Progress: How Women and Are Wealthier, Healthier and More Independent Than Ever Before and is an MSNBC political analyst and a Sunday columnist with The Examiner.