‘Just Add Women and Stir’—A perfect recipe for dashed hopes and disappointment

In light of the government shutdown and Americans’ increasing dissatisfaction with democracy, it is no surprise that the so-called New Wave of Democrats in the 116th Congress have become a beacon of hope to liberal Americans. Media coverage has focused on the record number of women serving in the new Congress, suggesting that the historically female freshman class will, in the words of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), “redeem the promise of the American dream,” and alleviate feelings of indignation among those frustrated by a president who doesn’t care about governance.

But I want to advise caution when reporting on this new Congress and putting so much hope in a group of women who will undoubtedly face the same obstacles and challenges that made it difficult for them to win seats in the first place.

{mosads}As a political scientist with expertise in gender equality and policies for women’s inclusion, I have been particularly struck by the focus on these congresswomen’s transformative potential and drive to change the status quo in Washington. In my own research, I have encountered the high hopes placed on gender-inclusive policies in the United Nations. Recognizing that gender parity can contribute to better decision-making processes and better management, the UN has often embraced policies to give women seats at the table, described as “adding women and stirring,” to create impactful change. While “adding women and stirring” is one way to improve the status of women, we have learned that this single-pronged approach fails to address the root of the problemhistorical and cultural norms that perpetuate inequalities regardless of who is in office. Gender parity in institutions is good, but it’s just not good enough.

Current media coverage of freshmen congresswomen implicitly gives them the tasks of saving the United States from a misogynistic White House, remedying tribulations from the Kavanaugh Senate hearings, and redeeming the promise of the American dream. Who could possibly live up to those expectations? Lofty hopes are dooming these freshman congresswomen from the start, in the same way that hopes laid out for Barack Obama as the first black president doomed him to disappoint.

To be very clear—I am in no way suggesting that having more women in Congress is a bad or unremarkable thing. Like many young women, I am thrilled to see people in positions of power who look like me and are more representative of the people in my community and country. However, placing the burden of change—even rhetorically—on these newly-elected congresswomen’s shoulders is in no way helpful. In fact, I am convinced that it is harmful to their legacy and future efforts to combat inequality.

The reality is that challenges to gender equality exist not because there aren’t enough women in office, but rather because there are patriarchal relations between men and women that perpetuate inequalities. If we fool ourselves into thinking that increasing diversity in Congress is the only thing that needs to happen to rectify racism, sexism, and other divisive biases, we are missing the root of the problem. Further, we’re shirking our responsibility as citizens to combat inequalities. Truly transformative change comes from grassroots organizing and local activism.

We cannot expect these women to correct all ills. If that is our expectation of them, they are destined to disappoint. Freshmen congresswomen should be given the opportunity to learn the ins-and-outs of Washington in the same way that freshmen congressmen are, not saddled unfairly with the impossible goal of redeeming Congress. If freshmen congresswomen don’t meet the impossible standards being set for them, these lofty hopes will become fodder for naysayers and seeds of doubt for supporters, making it even more difficult for women to win future elections.

To best support these women’s work and advocate for a transformation of patriarchal norms, we would do well to focus on the institutional challenges new congresswomen face in the days, months, and years ahead. We should be attentive to the insidious norms that emerge to block these women’s efforts and actively address what can be done, locally and nationally, to alleviate these challenges. We must keep in mind that institutional norms are near-impossible to escape without a long-term and concerted effort on everyone’s part.

It’s great that more women are in Congress, but we cannot expect that adding more women to the congressional mix will fix our problems. American citizens are still on the hook to create lasting change, and we would be unwise to forget this responsibility.

Katelyn Jones is the Women, Peace, and Security Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and Public Fellow with the American Council of Learned Societies.

Tags Barack Obama Nancy Pelosi

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