With two women running for president, the public is considering the potential value of having more women in elected office. It's well-known that despite women's gains educationally, professionally and financially, women still lag behind men in the political arena. For instance, women only hold 18 percent of congressional seats, comprise 24 percent of state legislatures and hold five gubernatorial seats. Some activists argue we need to balance the scales in the name of equality. They say increasing the number of women in Congress means more attention will be paid to "women's issues," like pay equity and paid leave policies, and a change in the fundamental culture of politics, creating more congeniality and "progress."

Often, those who focus on the lack of women in elected office overlook the role that women have always played in the American system. During the American founding, there was little tolerance for women's participation in the political arena. Women's sphere of political influence resided largely within the home, where, through their roles as wives and mothers, they worked to ensure their husbands and sons adhered to republican principles — encouraging them to value limited government and civic virtue. Even the social reformers of the 19th century, pushing for suffrage, were grounded in the Enlightenment principles of individualism and universal rights.

More than two centuries later, gender roles have clearly evolved and women are no longer on the sidelines. But in our modern quest for gender parity in politics, we ought to be careful not to overlook the importance of the principles that have motivated women from the beginning.

Encouraging more women to run for office is not a bad thing in and of itself. I'm a firm believer in gender differences and would agree that men and women likely bring different strengths and qualities to the table. I also agree that for many women the modern-day campaign is not appealing. In fact, research shows that the "noisiness of the campaign environment" — the 24-hour news cycle, the attention media focuses on a candidate's family, and an inattention to the issues that matter — may be the real reason women stay out of the political fray. That's a shame and the public ought to consider how to shape a media environment that encourages our best women and men to seek office.

Still, ultimately, political values must outweigh the importance of gender. Take for instance the fact that today there are 20 women in the U.S. Senate — a considerable achievement. However, my political views differ considerably from 16 of these women. Does their presence actually change the culture of politics? Or does it reshape government — and the relationship between citizen and state — in a way that I find worrisome?

Too often the conversation around women in politics focuses almost entirely on achieving gender parity in elected office rather than all the other important ways women impact political life. The question remains: is passing legislation all that matters? Or should we focus — as our Founding Fathers (and mothers) did — on the principles being advanced?

If the latter is the case, then women committed to limited government and individual rights are influencing and directing politics everyday without necessarily being in elected office. Groups like the one I help oversee — the Independent Women's Forum — are having a profound impact on the conversation about women and politics. Similar outlets like the Network of Enlightened Women (NeW) have emerged on college campuses across the country to expand intellectual diversity. Female columnists and writers abound in print and online, offering insight and analysis about political values and trends. Women-led research and polling firms direct campaigns. Women are over-represented throughout the state think tank system, which directly affects policy at the state level. And, the tea party — presumably one of the most important political movements in decades — is organized and run overwhelmingly by women.

There are many ways we all can affect the political process; but men and women are different — we share different talents, aptitudes and interests. And if women are more inclined toward organizing bodies on the ground or writing about the implications of policy, why not embrace these strengths?

Women may be more effective at working collaboratively and "getting things done," but this is where principles and politics collide. Let's not allow our enthusiasm for gender equality to fog our view of just how influential women already are today.

Sabrina L. Schaeffer is executive director of the Independent Women's Forum