State Needs More ‘Important Voices’ in Bismarck
Susan Wefald, an 18-year veteran of the North Dakota Public Service Commission, has raised the subject of women in government with her book, Important Voices, published recently by the Institute of Regional Studies Press.
In her introduction, Wefald declared that “our state needs the ‘important voices’ of many women leaders as it meets the challenges of the 21st century.”
She pointed out that while hundreds of men have been elected to state offices since statehood, only 17 women have served in elected offices.
Her book gives us their biographies, starting with the first woman state officeholder in the nation Laura Eisenbuth, who served as North Dakota’s superintendent of public instruction 1893-94.
Eisenbuth’s eligibility for office hung by a thread during the debates of the 1889 constitutional convention when delegates, all men, wrangled over whether or not to let women vote for the office of state superintendent.
While short-lived, Eisenbuth’s political career should serve as an example of tenacity for women aspirants for state office. She lost as a Democrat in 1890; won as a Populist in 1892, and lost as a nominee on the Fusion ticket in 1894 and again in 1896.
In addition to tenacity, local governments and the state legislature are good places to train for a state position. Such experience builds political contacts, hones social skills and provides an understanding of a government of law.
But how legitimate is Wefald’s desire for more women in state offices? Why do we need more “important voices” in Bismarck?
The most cited reason is that women are entitled to a greater share of elective positions. With over 50 percent of the population, the argument goes, they ought to have more offices just because of their numbers.
While numerical equality is an indisputable argument, it is not the best. An even better argument is what I call “talent loss”. Society has been losing the benefit of women’s talents because cultural gender bias has been denying them the opportunity to contribute.
The women who have broken the bias barrier have demonstrated the talent we have been losing.
Nationally, a stream of talented American women has provided foreign policy leadership, starting with Madeleine Albright. Overseas, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Israel’s Golda Meir all served with distinction.
In his new book, “The Road to Character”, David Brooks noted that Frances Perkins, secretary of labor in the 1930s, was the driving force behind the creation of Social Security, a program that is still benefiting millions of people today.
How many innovations have not been made because women were not being heard in the public square? This is a valid question because research indicates that women are basically more innovative and creative then men.
There is still another benefit to having more women in public affairs. A better female-male balance would increase civility in a governmental process now bogged down in rancor and contention.
Surveys indicate that women are superior to men when it comes to compromise and negotiation. They would do better than contentious men at building consensus. A Congress with a larger number of women would be more bipartisan and less polarized.
Compromise and negotiation are also important in our state government, because North Dakota uses a large number of ex-officio committees in which groups of elected officials must cooperate to carry out state policy.
So Wefald has a point. With greater numbers, women could add ‘important voices’ to public affairs and provide new dimensions in representativeness, leadership, creativity and consensus building.
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