OCHIENG: Beyond filling the seats

Between Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” gaffe, “legitimate rape” comments and recent legislative fights regarding women’s health, finding a panacea for our oft-misogynistic political system has been a topic of national conversation in recent months. While the gender imbalance in top political and business positions is not a problem endemic to the United States, it is especially egregious when considering our purported role as a global leader and major economy. Critics often attribute the troubling climate around gender in many nations as simply a product of a lack of female representation in the highest rungs of legislative bodies. However, can an increase in female representation solve the many problems related to gender and sexuality?

On Election Night, the United States took a great leap forward as women made historic leaps in Congressional representation. The 113th Congress will have at least 19 female senators and 77 Congresswomen when it meets for the first time this January. New Hampshire, in particular, made headlines with its all-female congressional delegation.

Given the verbal sparring over the “war on women” that dominated election coverage and President Obama’s ultimate 18-point percentage lead among women, this White House and Congress will play crucial roles in advancing our national attitude towards women or continuing to let the troubling dynamic continue. But we cannot simply be content with the increase in female representation; it does not automatically correlate with action. Although Sweden, a nation that receives a great deal praise for its progressive stances, has 45 percent female representation in the Riksdag, it also has the second-highest number of rape and sexual assault allegations in the world at 63 out of 100,000 people. While some critics attribute the high number of reports to a culture that encourages victims of sexual assault to feel comfortable reporting misconduct, the fact still remains that the nation still is negligent when it comes to prosecuting such crimes.

With the new surge in female representation, we cannot fall into the similar trap of relying upon image to carry us towards progress. Instead, we must implement policies with real teeth in them. During this year’s election, Obama worked hard to portray himself as a defender of women’s rights. While he has made strides in addressing issues like equal pay on a national level, his administration has not rigorously enforced other aspects of his women’s rights agenda such as domestic violence. Despite the fact that Vice President Biden worked with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan last year to craft a comprehensive guide to helping schools address sexual violence on their campus, we have yet to see enforcement of it. Enough talk, time for action.

The women of Congress bear a unique burden because we exist in a bizarre transition time of figuring out just how fourth-wave feminism will express itself. Although the women’s rights movement was once thought to be behind us, recent events and comments by major figures in the political and media landscapes tell us that it is not. These women have an obligation to their American sisters to ensure that their rights are protected and to encourage their male colleagues to care as well. This can be achieved by applying pressure in the legislative branch and challenging the President and his administration to set a national agenda that prioritizes women’s issues. We need women and men fighting on behalf of reproductive rights, equal pay and working towards a work-life balance that enables women to reach heights as leaders in the public and private sector. The women of the House and Senate are not simply benchmarks of progress, but figures with the capacity to effect substantive policy shifts.

Kiki Ochieng is a sophomore in Silliman College. Contact her at akinyi.ochieng@yale.edu .

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