Thursday, March 22, 2007

Women and the Politics of Morality
by Amy Caiazza

Some are calling this the "new year of the woman." We have already seen one woman, for the first time, occupy the Speaker's chair during a State of the Union address and another emerge as the frontrunner for her party's presidential nomination. Indeed, for women leaders in U.S. politics, things have been looking up in the last decade. We've seen an increase in the number of women governors and the second woman to serve as secretary of state.

Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice have given us new inspiration to think about what the world might be if women were in charge. In large part, this debate has focused on what women's leadership might mean for policy: Would we have universal child care? Higher quality education and universal health care? Paid family leave? If women were really in charge -- that is, if women's leadership, lives, and concerns were fully included in politics from the local to the national level -- we could see even more earth-shattering change. We might see our country pursue a set of values that would shift the focus of political debate altogether. Women have the potential to push America to embrace values of mutuality, shared responsibility, and concern for the weakest and most disadvantaged.

America needs the kind of leadership that women can provide. We, as a nation, can look to myriad examples where we have fallen short: Hurricane Katrina's aftermath, increasing levels of economic inequality and hardship, a messy health insurance system and the war in Iraq. Women have a long, historical, lived experience that speaks to the new perspectives and values that they can bring to these issues. For all of the talk in recent years about "family values," it's been women who have tended to the values of our families, caring for one another and recognizing our responsibility to people other than ourselves. We understand that self-interest and individual rights are important but cannot be the only values that define our lives.

This perspective is not essential to being a woman, or even exclusive to us, but it is shaped by centuries of living out our historical roles, passed down, generation to generation, and is still often evident in how many women talk and think about politics.

While women have historically applied these values primarily to our families, homes, and in service to our communities, we know on some level that they are equally applicable, relevant, and profoundly important in public life at its highest levels. Now, as women take political leadership in increasing numbers, we hope to be taken seriously in the ways we discuss and consider our policies and practices.

This is a moral vision worth aspiring to. We need women's leadership to translate it into the practice of politics. Women can use their values to rethink policy and government in ways that acknowledge a sense of shared responsibility and recognize that people do not have control over all aspects of their social and economic lives. This should lead a rich nation to help its people, out of respect for basic dignity, when they have few choices in their quest to keep body and soul together.

It's not hard to imagine what America, under the kind of women's leadership we envision, might look like. Communities torn apart by disaster would get the resources they need to rebuild. Schools would have the resources they need to truly ensure that no child is left behind. We would not constantly toil to implement more tax cuts for the wealthiest. And we would not wage war against people who are not attacking us.

This is a moral vision that could pull us together rather than tear us apart and build empathy rather than hatred. It has very little to do with how politicians usually talk about moral values, but may be closer to how most of us live our lives -- and how most of the American people would have our government and politicians lead the country.

When politicians return to the mantra of moral values, we hope that women are at the forefront of those conversations. In the 2006 congressional elections, women voters led the call for fundamental change. Their voices should be heeded. We believe that an infusion of women's political leadership carries the promise of reframing our policy debates in ways that bring new and fresh ideas about the values we pursue as a country. We believe that, given the chance to lead, women just might hold the country to a new, and higher, moral standard.


Caiazza, Ph.D., is director of Democracy and Society at the Institute for Women's Policy Research.