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PERSPECTIVE ON GOVERNMENT : Feminizing Congress in One Sweep : A rebirth of our institutions requires equality of power; to start, reserve half of the Senate seats for women.

<i> Robert S. McElvaine is Elizabeth Chisholm Professor of Arts and Letters at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss. His new book, "The Way We Are: Human Nature, Sex and Traditional Values," will be published by Scribners next year</i>

It is undeniable that our government is overwhelmingly male. The only questions are: Does it matter, and, if so, what can be done about it?

Those who claim that women and men are the same save for “different plumbing” have difficulty arguing that the sexual composition of the government makes much difference. But if we accept that women and men are far more similar than different, yet do have some significant distinctions, it follows that the sexual composition of the government does matter.

We have come in recent years to understand that, as psychologist Carol Gilligan noted a decade ago, women think and speak “in a different voice” from that used by men. The sexes tend to have differing perspectives on a whole host of matters, from war to social programs. Regardless of whether the cause of this sexual division of values lies in biology or culture, democracy does not really exist when only men participate.

The 19th Amendment did little to change the sexual imbalance of power in American government. Our political system (like all social, political and economic systems for at least 4,000 years) is male-conceived. It was created by people we call “Founding Fathers.” But just as males cannot successfully conceive in a physical sense on their own, so it follows that social systems conceived without significant female participation are bound to be missing something, to be deformed in some significant way.

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The hope of many in the early years of the modern women’s movement was that as women entered traditionally male worlds, such as business, law and politics, they would be able to “feminize” them, infuse these institutions that had been established on the basis of male values with a dose of female values. This was bound to be a difficult proposition. It meant trying to be accepted as “one of the boys” while seeking to change the rules by which the boys play their game.

At a 1989 conference at the Kennedy School at Harvard, then-Gov. Madeleine Kunin of Vermont spoke of these difficulties. Women going into politics, she said, hoped to construct “a less adversarial and more consensus-built system; that is what we are more comfortable with.” The basic trouble, as Kunin put it, is that our political system “is still largely male-defined,” and the overwhelming pressure on women in these male-made institutions is to “act like men.”

To put it another way, the language of women is simply not spoken in Congress. It was, for example, not difficult for many senators to put themselves in the place of Judge Clarence Thomas and imagine themselves to have been accused, unfairly or otherwise, of sexual harassment. Few of them could really imagine themselves in Prof. Anita Hill’s situation.

It is too late for our governmental institutions to be born with women’s participation. But the time is long overdue for these institutions to be born again. If women--and, even more important, female values--are blended into the reconception that leads to the rebirth of our institutions, the resulting progeny should be a vast improvement over their half-brothers, the male-conceived social, political and economic systems under which we live today.

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Trying to elect more women to the Senate and House is a worthy objective, but that is unlikely to solve the problem, which is a system that was set up by and for men. Something more sweeping is needed to begin to achieve the rebirth of a wholly balanced system: an equal-power amendment establishing an equality of congressional seats for women and men. This would put many more women into decision-making positions and make female values more acceptable. The language of women, as well as that of men, would begin to be spoken in Congress.

Of course, such a proposal will immediately be denounced in some quarters as a “quota system,” but something like it is already in effect in other areas of political life. Both of our major political parties have national committeemen and committeewomen from each state. All delegates of both sexes at a state convention vote for the candidates for both types of position, but only men are eligible for one, only women for the other.

Instituting a plan for equal representation of the sexes would be relatively easy in the Senate, with its two seats for each state. One could be designated as that of the state’s “senatewoman,” the other that of its “senateman.” It would be more difficult, but doable, to create a similar system in the House.

An equal-power amendment would have to be passed by extraordinary majorities in assemblies controlled by men who would thereby be surrendering much of their power and many of their seats. That is about as likely as members of Congress voting to limit their own terms. But what we have now might best be summarized as a government “of the people, by the men and for the men,” and some way has to be found to change that if we are to have any hope of achieving a better, genuinely balanced and democratic society.

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It is possible for a family to function well with only a mother or a father, but the evidence is overwhelming that families usually work better when parents of both sexes are present. The same is true of the national leadership. Our nearly womanless government faces odds against it as great as those confronting the fatherless families of our age.

The United States has been literally “the last, best hope of mankind.” The time has come to try to create what might be called the first, best hope of humankind.


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