Women in the House: Progress Comes in Steps, Not Waves

Women in the House: Progress Comes in Steps, Not Waves November 7, 2018

As of today, there are 100 Women in the House of Representatives.

100 Women in the House. First, let me just say—dibs for band name and/or book title!

When I was doing research to write my book, I came across some grim data. Statistics showed that America was about 50 years away from having equal representation in government. Fifty years. Five decades. Longer than the span of time since the feminist movement of the 70s and right now. That was a heavy reality because honestly, how many of us are going to live that long?

Equal representation is critical to any real semblance of equal rights. And so, as I trudged through more disheartening study of history and sociology, that imbalance became (at least in my head) the central flame of rage and truth in the story I was telling: nothing changes until we are in the room. And once we ARE in the room—in significant numbers—things will get better for everyone. 

Women—especially women of color—lost some heartbreaking races yesterday in the midterm elections. But on the whole, I think we tipped the odds and accelerated the pace at which change might happen. Equality is a goal post that keeps moving, but at this rate, some of us Gen Xers might at least see a truly diverse and representative government in our lifetime.

When we talk about “equal representation” as a marker of progress, that doesn’t mean that we celebrate progressive candidates only. Some of those Women in the House are conservative. That’s a good thing, too. As long as we are part of a two-party system, we need women’s voices in both camps. Having women in the room changes the conversation. Having women in government changes how we govern. Send a few more next time. And a few more the time after that. At some point, you get the fly-wheel effect, and change becomes self-perpetuating. 

But it doesn’t happen in one big wave—blue or otherwise. It comes one painful step at a time.

Some state races reminded us of as much last night. Take Kentucky, for instance, where a highly qualified female Congressional candidate was defeated by a male incumbent who ran on a textbook platform of “don’t vote for her, she’s a girl.” Amy McGrath ran a strong, issues-based campaign, refusing to engage in the attack ads that Andy Barr used against her in a shameless play on regional stereotypes and tribalism. But yeah, he won. There were other such races around the country—because patriarchy runs deep; and the politics of fear are nothing if not effective.

It wasn’t the “blue wave” many predicted. But the image of waves implies something natural and self-perpetuating. Maybe even inevitable. In reality, real social change involves a push/pull effect. A dance of two steps forward and one back.

But when we look at our political landscape right now, we are talking about uprooting decades—centuries, really—of deeply rooted patriarchy. The power and privilege of the white male voice is entrenched in every system we’re a part of. That doesn’t change overnight or with any one election. It requires a long march in a single direction: forward. Meaningful progress comes from boots on the ground. Knocking on doors, talking to neighbors, and WALKING—literally and figuratively—alongside the marginalized populations that still lack equal voice.

And that means it can’t be about just white women.

Another thing I learned while writing a book on faith and feminism is that throughout history, white women have consistently sold out their sisters of color in the interest of their own advancement. From slavery to suffrage to the Civil Rights movement, it seems that in order to advance the interests of “women,” as an organic whole, white women have played by the rules of patriarchy in order to have a seat at the table.

There’s also this thing called “internalized misogyny,” in which women perpetuate the cycles of white male power, often at the expense of even their own interests. Case in point: white women of Texas. FFS, Texas white ladies voted for Ted Cruz last night, to the tune of 59 percent. Talk about voting against your nose to save your face (or something like that). It defies all reason … And yet, patriarchy runs deep. Entire narratives need to be rewritten before we will see progress in real time.

What I hope we will see, moving forward, is a new crop of women in leadership—100 Women in the House—who have gotten the memo about intersectionality. Women who will hear the call of leaders like Stacy Abrams and seriously address the issues of gerrymandering and voter suppression before the next election. Leaders who will work to create more room for the voices of ethnic and religious minorities in places of authority. Their challenge is not just to lead in greater numbers, but to lead in new ways.

If you live in Kentucky, or Florida, or Texas, or Georgia—or any other place where a clearly qualified woman or candidate of color lost to a predictable voice of fear-mongering patriarchy—all I can tell you is, get back out there. Keep stepping. Stay in the game. Run for office, or find good candidates and support them. Keep showing up, doing the work, and trust that every step you take is a step towards equality; even if it feels less like riding a wave and more like trudging through mud. This is how we get there. One step at a time, and every day.

Shall we end on a high note? This election, if not a wave of change, indicates at least some big leaps forward. Of those “women in the house,” two are Native American (holler back, Sharice Davids of Kansas). Two of those women are Muslim. (Yes, it is going to be fun to watch Mike Pence swear them in with the Koran). You know what? Check out this whole list of big “firsts” among last night’s winners. Let them give us hope that better, more just days are coming. But those days will be the result of centuries walking, running, marching—one foot in front of the other, every damn day of the world.

Want to read more? My book,”Resist and Persist,” is about the many ways patriarchal Christianity affects women’s lives. Check it out. 

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