Schar School Presents: Can Women Save Democracy?

On February 27, 2019, George Mason’s Schar School of Policy and Government put on the First Annual Pennino Panel on Gender and Policy, titled “Can Women Save Democracy? Women Political Leaders in the time of Trump and #MeToo?” The school’s Gender and Policy Initiative, also known as “GAP”, was formed in the fall of 2017 and works to ‘mind the gap’ between the genders in political spheres. This panel, helmed by several political heavyweights both in Virginia legislature and the House of Representatives, sought to highlight the sometimes winding road that women face in their paths to office, filled double-standards and casual misogyny.

Related: A Seat At the Table: the (Female) Road to 2020

Photo courtesy of authors

Moderated and organized by Dr. Bonnie Stabile and Dr. Toni-Michelle Travis, the panel of speakers sought to discuss “how women come to power, the nature of their accomplishments and the significance of closing the gender gap at this historic juncture” as well as gender equity and inclusion in public office. Featuring Representative Jennifer Wexton; Anne Holton, former Virginia Secretary of Education, Visiting Professor, Schar School of Policy and Government; Virginia House Democratic Leader Eileen Filler-Corn; Virginia House Democratic Caucus Chair Charniele Herring; and Delegate Ken Plum. The five discussed barriers to election and principle policy initiatives facing women then took a few questions from the audience.

Via @RepWexton on Twitter

Firstly, the panelists were asked to speak about what they feel is the most pressing policy initiative for women. Wexton led off the responses by reminding us that “women’s issues are intersectional,”  and are the same issues that are facing men and families, with examples being paid family and medical leave, affordable healthcare and universal background checks -- which passed in the House of Representatives that very day with Wexton’s support. Anne Holton agreed with the congresswoman; then continued on with stating that some issues simply impact women more, adding that “income inequality is gender inequality.” Delegate Ken Plum -- the only man on the panel -- shared his unique perspective on the question by dropping a mind-blowing fact on the audience: the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) has never been brought to the floor of the Virginia legislature for a vote. Despite being introduced several times and having garnered enough support within the houses to pass, the proposed amendment is always killed in committee.

Next, the panelists discussed the obstacles facing women in elections and government. Delegate Charline Herring - - also the first woman of color to lead a committee in a Virginia State Legislature and a Mason alumna -- cited the archaic system of connections between political elites as a major barrier to election for women, namely young women and women of color who have previously been all but barred from these elite circles. She reminds us all not to “wait and ask or be asked to run for office,” but instead to carve your own path.

Related: “She Should Run” Encourages Women to Seek Elected Office

While this panel highlighted the gulf of inequality that women continue to face in the political sphere, it didn’t serve to cast a cloud of uncertainty and disappointment over its audience. Instead, as the women and men spanning several generations discussed their experiences and opinions over their careers, it reminded us not just of how far we still have to go, but also how far we’ve come.

The juxtaposition of Jennifer Wexton’s historic 116th congress with the stories of women waiting to be told they should run for office reminds us that while a woman’s place has always been in the House of Representatives, Virginia House of Delegates and everywhere in between, she wasn’t always welcome there. It’s the work of the political trailblazers on the stage, as well as those who came before them and those who will come after them, that have carved women a place in our history books, news headlines and Toni-Michelle C. Travis’ Political Almanac. We’re building a bridge over the gap and, in the words of Dr. Bonnie Stabile, “the proof is in the policy.”