Chicago author Kathleen Rooney on the state of women in politics


January 30, 2014 9:42AM

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Updated: March 4, 2014 4:33PM

During the miserable government shutdown this past fall, Senator John McCain joked, “The women are taking over.” While this remark represents an occasion for some much-needed lightness on a dim Congressional landscape, it’s not a joke, exactly. Congresswomen from across the ideological spectrum really were instrumental; about half the senators on the bipartisan committee that worked out the deal to end the stalemate were women. Given that women comprise only 20 percent of the Senate, this proportion is impressive.

As someone who used to work for a male senator in my native Chicago, I admired what these women were doing. Equally, I admired the style with which they were doing it. They were pragmatic and civil. They were collaborative and determined not to let egos hold the interests of the electorate hostage. To be clear, I’m not saying that women senators are intrinsically superior to male ones. But there is something important to be learned from a cooperative and inclusive style.

And style, denigrated though it often is, is not the opposite of substance. It is substance. Style simply means a manner of doing something, or a prevailing mode of expression. When the male-dominated mode of Congress is one of vitriol and tough-guy intractability, a style that permits legislation to actually be negotiated should be more than welcomed. Why not bring the way in which you do something in line with what you hope to get done?

When I began writing my novel, “O, Democracy!” (out this April), I spoke to other women who worked for elected officials to learn about their experiences. Sure enough, many of them were faced with the same choice: suck it up and deal with a sexist style, or quit a job you love and are good at.

When arguably the only style of politics that’s working on even a limited basis is that practiced by women, the style of Congress overall — particularly behind the scenes, where staffers work — still leaves much to be desired in terms of equality.

The poet Charles Bukowski, a man few would mistake for a feminist, said, “Style is the answer to everything. A fresh way to approach a dull or dangerous thing.” Politics can be both dull and dangerous. The treatment of women as second-rate citizens in a participatory democracy is dull, in that it has been done thoughtlessly since the inception of the country, when Abigail Adams encouraged her husband to “remember the ladies.” The treatment of women as second-rate citizens is dangerous, in that the point of public service is to serve the public, and we cannot do that if we fail to fully value the skills and efforts of better than half of the people who comprise that public.

We need a fresh style.

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