Political Minutes: The State of the Nation

On November 9, Dr. Alondra Nelson, Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies Professor at Columbia, moderated a discussion on “The State of the Nation: Race, Gender and the 2012 Elections." On the distinguished panel of women scholars and activists participating in this discussion were Darlene Nipper, Deputy Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Rebecca Traister, author and columnist for Salon.com and Patricia J. Williams, Columbia University Law School Professor and columnist for The Nation. Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the night was that Melissa Harris Perry, MSNBC host and author, was not a part of the panel as was previously planned and advertised. It was reported that she called in sick about an hour before the event.

Given the usual sad tone surrounding discussions on women’s and LGBTQ representation in government, it seemed as though this one would be no different. However, with the recent elections, which increased the amount of women in Congress to 20 senators and about 81 representatives, this discussion had a more positive tone. Moderator Professor Nelson began the discussion saying, “We thought we would be having a rather depressing conversation, and yet, given the events of the last week, we’re here to have a celebration”. But after the acknowledgement of the recent gains in the last election, the panelists quickly got down to business discussing how far this country has to go in terms of equality and equal representation.

The discussion began with the relevance of gender and sexuality in this year’s election and a discussion of the factors affecting it, ranging from the Internet and political satire to institutions like EMILY’s List which have long fought for equality, but the subject quickly diverged to a broader discussion of inequality in our society and the growing diversity of the electorate in the US. Columbia Law Professor Patricia Williams brought up the impact on society from having a black president, claiming that he not only breaks down a lot of black stereotypes but also that people often didn’t know where to fit him in. “Every time he would refer to his single mother, people would sort of blink and say oh, it’s not a black single mother, it’s a white single mother.”  Discussion of the President prompted a new shift in the conversation. Why is it that more representation for women in government means mostly white women representation? Rebecca Traister, columnist for Salon.com, responded to this, saying “This is a problem within the feminist movement . . . the question of moving forward, but not just for one kind or a couple of kinds of women  . . . and so these are issues that are at play in our electoral politics”.

Traister went on to say “What we are doing, or what we are in the process of doing is expanding our idea of what leadership can look like.” She then posed a hypothetical scenario: A young, white man in college who is smart and inspiring about public policy will be told that he should run for office; while a woman of any color, with the same characteristics will be more likely to be told that she should run his campaign. Because of these kinds of obstacles, according to the panelists, it is important to encourage viable men and women candidates of color to run for office.

Despite moments of cynicism, for the most part the three panelists gave a hopeful view of the future of equality in the United States. Traister, Nipper, and Williams were all admittedly encouraged by the trend toward unification they see in phenomena like the diversity of the coalition that came together to reelect President Obama. In the end each expressed a simple desire for leadership to some day reflect the same diversity of the American electorate.

With a historic number of women in the Senate, more discussion of woman’s rights in politics than ever before, and a Democratic Party that finally has been emboldened to stand for women, it seems as though 2012 truly is the “year of the woman” that feminists have fought so long for, though challenges remain. Poverty disproportionally affects women, women lack a tremendous number of benefits, and stereotypes continue to define appropriate roles for women in society.  As the event drew to a close, one audience member poignantly asked, “why aren’t young women angry?” which probably deserves some consideration.