It is a simple idea: that women in leadership positions will result in more just treatment of women everywhere.
Many problems facing women in our society stem, at least in part, from the fact that for centuries the people who have run our governments, our armed forces, our companies, our world, have been men – many who are unaware of, or insensitive to, women’s needs.
Some believe that with more women in powerful leadership roles, there will be fewer rapes, less gender bias, no glass ceilings, more childcare, more women’s bathrooms in airports, offices, and sports stadiums.
The standard rebuttal to this argument is similarly simple: that a woman in power won’t be any more fair than the man who preceded her, because justice does not spring from gender. Many argue that single-handedly changing a company, a government, or a country, is too much to expect of one person, male or female.
Others believe that any woman who makes it to the pinnacle of a male-dominated institution must have already shed her feminism. Some darkly believe that women are inherently sexist too, that women are our own worst enemies, refusing to stand up for each other, help one another, or support each other in the public or private realms. Anecdotal evidence abounds, heralded by “the worst boss I ever had was a woman…”
Of course there are many terrible female bosses. There are also female leaders of patriarchal countries who could not improve conditions for women (and some who didn’t even try).
Indira Gandhi, India’s prime minister for stretches between 1996 and 1984. Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s prime minister during the 1980s and 90s. Margaret Thatcher, England’s prime minister from 1979 to 1990.
Formidable leaders, yes – but not focused on women’s equality or reforming the legal system.
What’s missing here is the power of the plural. One woman – one boss, one police chief, one president, one prime minister – can only do so much to right systemic sexism. As much as I love Hillary Clinton, as president not even she could fix what’s wrong in a country where women earn less than men, where fewer than 4% of rapes are reported, where three women are killed every day by husbands, ex-husbands, and former partners.
But many women in power? Yes. A plurality of women in public life can and will change our world. In many ways, that is the essence of Sheryl Sandburg’s Lean In premise.
Take the U.S. military. When film-maker Amy Ziering set out to document sexual assaults against women in our armed forces, she was told no one would watch the film or care about the subject. She persevered. The data she found was outrageous. In 2012, there were 22,800 reported violent sex crimes in the military. Forty-nine men and women report being assaulted by fellow soldiers every day. An American female soldier in a war zone is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire. Ziering’s 2012 film The Invisible War brought the epidemic against women into public view.
In all likelihood, sexual assaults in the military have been concealed for decades, because female victims, vastly outnumbered by their male counterparts, were ignored or even penalized when they reported attacks. In 2012, for every official report, about nine cases of “unwanted sexual contact” went unreported. That comes to about 500 cases a week.
The Invisible War’s spotlight galvanized two female senators, Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) to introduce the Military Justice Improvement Act. A fundamental point of the legislation is that women in the military, a tiny minority surrounded by powerful men, have long felt powerless to call out or seek justice for sexual assault crimes. There simply weren’t enough women listening to them.
Legislative changes designed to empower and protect victims of sexual assault in the military are still being duked out. But chances are, there would not be a debate, much less proposals for corrective legislature, if nearly 30% of the Armed Services committee – 7 of the 26 members — weren’t women.
In many ways, today’s fight for equal rights for women is a numbers game. A single woman can do only so much alone. But a plurality of women can make sure their voices are heard and changes are made. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts – we are strongest when we stand together, when we speak up and speak out in support of each other.