Remembering the Ladies

There is nothing a man more enjoys hearing than the assertion that women are better than men at everything.

This obvious fact having been made not nearly enough, we heard it again at the conclusion of this year’s series of presidential debates, two of which (for the first time) were moderated by women.

Following Jim Lehrer’s passive, lackluster refereeing of the first meeting between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, Martha Raddatz received high marks for her efforts in the running mate rumble between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan the following week.  She and Candy Crowley, maestro of the second Obama-Romney face-off, seemed to make it clear:  Women moderate debates better than man.

In these waning days of the 2012 presidential campaign, we might reflect that a marked characteristic of this year’s electoral festivities has been the unprecedented ubiquity of so-called “women’s issues” in the national conversation.  Women have voted since 1920—and in greater proportions than men in every presidential election since 1980—but somehow this was the year that many politicians came to appreciate the benefits of broaching subjects, previously ignored, that directly affect this particular half of the population.

Women, for their part, appreciate nothing so much as having their most intimate concerns discussed by a panel of men.  We witnessed such a spectacle in February, when the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee conducted a hearing about whether contraception should be covered by health insurance, for which not a single woman was called to testify.

A pertinent question we might ask, then:  How much does it actually matter whether the people involved in these discussions are, in fact, women?  Is the existence of female leaders axiomatically good for women?

My short answer I will phrase in the form of a question:  Would women, as a group, be better off under a President Sarah Palin than under President Obama?

As you ponder that little riddle, allow me to issue a couple of useful reminders.

First, women are individuals who do not agree with each other about most issues, including abortion and contraception.  Very few matters divide perfectly, or even mostly, along gender lines.  We would do well not to act as if they do.

On the abortion question, there is a profoundly annoying school of thought roughly founded on the old Florynce Kennedy line, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament”—as if the entire anti-abortion argument were reducible to male chauvinism.

On the other hand, the Kennedy quip does offer insight into the role of empathy in this war of the sexes in which we are apparently engaged.

The entirety of this perceived gender divide, after all, is the assumption that men neglect women’s concerns because they are not men’s concerns.  Were men to have less of a policy stranglehold in the halls of power, the argument goes, this would not happen so often.

On this point, I offer a second useful reminder:  Men are individuals who do not agree with each other about most issues, including abortion and contraception.

As we theorize whether male pregnancy would turn abortion into a sacrament, we might recall that female pregnancy did not prevent an all-male Supreme Court from establishing abortion as a constitutional right, in Roe v. Wade.  This, and the existence of “pro-life” women, would seem to make the whole “men are the problem” argument the slightest bit untenable.

The real problem is not a deficit of women, but rather a deficit of empathy—an epidemic of not listening to each other, which has poisoned all levels of government for the better part of the last two centuries.

By way of analogy, consider the gay rights movement.

In the last decade, we have seen, among other things, the repeal by Congress of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the legalization of same-sex marriage in six states and the District of Columbia through a combination of legislative and judicial acts.

In none of these instances did the ruling party include a statistically significant number of homosexuals.  Indeed, the tally of openly gay U.S. congresspeople can be counted on the fingers on one hand.

The fact is that being gay is not required to understand gay issues, and being a woman is not required to understand women’s issues.  The key is for those with a vested interest in the great causes of the day to be effective lobbyists and agitators for them, winning the attention and understanding of those with the power to actually effect change.

Heed the words from a famous old story:  “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view….until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

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