Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

A Woman's Place—in Government

Ruth Melkonian


October 9, 2009

The US has a large gender gap when it comes to the proportion of government offices held by women. American women hold only 16.8% of U.S. Congressional seats, below a world average for legislatures of 18.6% and a European average of 21.4% (IUP 2009).

A Deloitte and Touche survey from 2000 reveals part of the explanation: the American public is not as supportive of having women with young children in office as they are of men with young children in office. Much of the public seems to presume that women should postpone government careers until after the child-rearing years while men should have no such timing restrictions. But the reality for most women is that if they don’t enter some form of government service early on, they are unlikely to build up experience necessary to be included in the pool from which candidates are tapped for higher office.

As a political science professor in a Christian liberal arts college, I see many young women questioning their desire to engage in political life because of a sense that its demands are incompatible with their plans for family and anticipated domestic responsibilities. Yet the irony is that if women do not enter public service at a viable age, it becomes that much more unlikely that they will ever garner the positions of real power from which public service itself can be reformed and made more amenable to family life.

A healthy work/family balance in the government sector (amongst others) would benefit not just women but all who wish to exercise their gifts in the public square. It is not just a “women’s issue” but a public justice issue. This is not to overlook the importance of parenting, but rather to question assumptions about professional and domestic life that too often limit fathers’ impact on their children and prohibit mothers’ appropriate stewardship of all of their talents.

Christians who consider themselves pro-family should exercise thoughtful leadership in this area. Unfortunately, the recent vice presidential candidacy of Sarah Palin revealed something else. Many social conservatives, who have otherwise been inclined to patriarchal attitudes, nevertheless supported Palin, a mother of young children. They rallied to her without clarifying what new moral and/or policy understanding would undergird their political support for a female vice president with Palin’s particular life circumstances. It seems many were simply pragmatically supporting a Christian conservative pro-lifer.

The political left also reacted awkwardly to Palin. In fact some of the critiques of Palin on the basis of her family responsibility did not come from the traditional right, but were printed in left-of-center outlets like The Washington Post. Liberal feminists, though understandably opposed to Palin on various policy grounds, largely failed to critique media attacks on her family/career choices. There was, moreover, an obvious double standard during the election cycle, as Barack Obama, a parent of young children, received very little criticism for being away from them for the better part of one and a half years during the presidential campaign.

Some conservatives appear to be shifting course on the issue of women seeking political power regardless of life stage, but without having thought through or articulated the reasons for such. Meanwhile, feminists who long argued for equal entree for women in the public square waver when conservative women are competitive. Despite their many differences, liberals and conservatives both say they want to reform the political system via just public policy. This is less likely to be achieved if we neglect to incorporate a considerable portion of our talent pool—women with young children. All sides should be willing to temper cultural expectations and adjust public policies in support of a healthy work/family balance—for both women and men—in public service.

—Ruth Melkonian-Hoover, Assistant Professor
   Political Studies Department, Gordon College

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”