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

Why the Well Qualified Should Rule the World

Ruth Melkonian


March 28, 2008

In spite of the provocative title of her new book, Why Women Should Rule the World, Dee Dee Myers, former press secretary in the Clinton administration, does not think women should rule exclusively. Her argument is that more women need to be involved in positions of power alongside men, not instead of them. She maintains that if more women were ruling, the world would be a better place. This argument is not dissimilar to that of the White House Project, a nonpartisan group that for some time has been promoting women in positions of power, maintaining, “When you add women—you change everything.”

It’s not always clear, however, precisely what is being changed. And that’s because advocates of the “just add women” persuasion tend to argue for women’s inclusion on multiple grounds. Not only do they promote women’s inclusion to ensure a more representative leadership (at least symbolically), but also because they tend to believe women have something unique to contribute, a value to add that men by nature do not bring to the table. Identity politics in general, not just gender politics, tends to produce these kinds of dubious claims.

In the current presidential race, many voters are admittedly willing to support a candidate simply because of his or her gender or racial identity. The rationale of many such voters is not much different from that of some Christians who presume that if only more serious Christians were in office, the world would improve markedly. And how precisely would women, African-Americans, and/or Christians be any different? The simplistic presumption is that if someone who shares my group’s identity-marker gets into power, the values and interests of my group will be advanced. Even more simplistically, some identity advocates presume that issues of concern to all human beings will somehow be addressed more effectively, consensually, ethically, and efficiently if those from “my group” gain power.

What Ms. Meyers argues in her book varies little from the arguments of other utopian advocates who rely on such reductionist solutions. She contends that women are more consensual, more pragmatic, and are less inclined to authorize violence than men. To her credit, Hillary Clinton does not rely on these sorts of arguments in her campaign. Neither is Barack Obama using racial identity-politics as an important feature of his campaign. The media, however, have been eager to impose gendered and racialized narratives on the campaign, seeing gender and race as shorthand for all sorts of implicit policy preferences, methods of leadership, and more.

Presuming that women or African-Americans should be admitted to hallways of power primarily on the basis of difference and not on the basis of justice and qualification for office is a dangerous proposition. As my graduate advisor at Emory University, Beth Reingold, has argued: “Women should not have to prove they are extra-special in order to claim the rights and privileges to which they are justly due.” The same holds for African-Americans.

Arguing for the support of either candidate primarily on the basis of the gender or racial distinction they bring to the table belittles their substantive qualifications. It is not that such distinctions are insignificant, but making them a primary focus constrains expectations of what either can accomplish once in office. And this, perhaps, is why Sen. Clinton is not jumping on Myers’ bandwagon. Instead of making a special effort to highlight expertise on “soft issues” often associated with women (education, healthcare, etc.), she is emphasizing broad policy competence and ability to handle pressure.

Justice demands that we respect candidates as a people created in the image of God and evaluate them fairly, on the basis of their records, positions, character, and talents, for their qualifications to hold the public office to which they aspire.

—Ruth Melkonian, Assistant Professor of Political Studies
    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.”