Republican U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, the first woman to represent Texas in the Senate, will retire next year after twenty years of supporting big oil and anti-choice legislation, despite the fact that she calls herself “pro-choice.” She recently talked to Voice of America, saying women going into politics today face fewer barriers than when she first took office in 1993:
“When I first started in politics I had to prove that I can do the job, prove that I was tough and strong and you’re tested,” she said. “But I think that each time women do well in a higher office then people aren’t worried anymore and I think we have made good progress in that regard.”
Despite this, Hutchison adds that the Senate has added just ten women–to a total of 17–in the two decades since she took office. I appreciate Hutchison’s point, even though I have immensely disliked having her as my senator for practically my whole life. I’m tired of sending letters to her office encouraging her to vote for LGBTQ rights, pro-choice legislation and health care reform only to be form-lettered back with, more or less, “Your concerns are important to me, but not really, they just make me say that. Please donate to my reelection campaign!”
I think it is true that to some degree, the more people get used to seeing a woman–any woman–hold public office, the easier it is for all women to achieve public office. At the same time, I don’t think Kay Bailey Hutchison is doing any woman, anywhere, apart from Kay Bailey Hutchison, any favors when she votes to restrict abortion access, limit health care reform and support unnecessary wars, all the while lining her pockets with Exxon-Mobil cash. (Same goes for the likes of Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, though anything the demonstrably intelligent though conservative Hutchison has said or done over the years pales in comparison to the fear-mongering assbaggery and willful ignorance perpetuated by Palin and Bachmann.)
It comes down to this: women are supposed to simply be happy that a woman, any woman, is successful in politics before they are supposed to even start considering the woman in office’s political beliefs. Politically speaking, women are often treated as some kind of Women With A Capital W Group who all vote and think alike, and aren’t we all just so happy to see a lady up there? Much of this is discussed in a really fantastic book I’m finally reading now, Big Girls Don’t Cry, by Salon’s Rebecca Traister, about women in the 2008 elections.
For me, and my feminist politics, the goal isn’t to vote women into office. Or, it isn’t only to vote women into office. It’s to vote women into office who support pro-woman, pro-human legislation that improves the quality of life for everyone–and to me, that path is a liberal, progressive one. I think there’s a big difference between things getting better for women in terms of their prospects for holding political positions and things getting better for all women in their daily lives. HR3, the GOP’s comprehensive assault on women’s rights and bodily autonomy, proves that.
The question becomes–and I believe a version of this is posed by Traister in her book, which I mentioned above–if we have to choose, and sometimes we do, when it comes to improving women’s lives, is it better for a woman of any given political bent to hold office, or is it better for a progressive, liberal man to hold office?