Written by Wendy Norris for RHRealityCheck.org – News, commentary and community for reproductive health and justice.
Wendy Norris of RH Reality Check conducted an interview with Marie Wilson, the founder and president of The White House Project and former president of the Ms. Foundation. RHRealityCheck.org will post the White House Project’s Denver panel discussion on leadership with women in business, academia, media and faith as soon as it becomes available.
Marie Wilson is calling a spade a spade. As she sees it, the overheated debate over abortion is being used as a convenient foil for healthcare reform in order to avoid a much more controversial cultural issue — the role of women in contemporary American society.
That unspoken and still radioactive debate 77 years after the Equal Rights Amendment was first introduced in Congress in 1923 continues to fuel traditional notions of a woman’s place in the boardroom and the bedroom.
Wilson, the founder and president of nonpartisan The White House Project, was in Denver, Colo., recently to discuss the organization’s new comprehensive study, Benchmarking Women’s Leadership.
But to achieve the critical mass of women in positions of authority, we need to move beyond the artificial restrictions of gender stereotypes to a nation that fully benefits from the talents of its best and brightest in the executive suite, at the lectern and in the pulpit.
RH Reality Check sat down with Wilson to talk about the challenges of nurturing women’s leadership in the wake of the divisive Congressional healthcare reform debate.
RHRC:The concept of healthcare reform has been so mutilated by politicians, religious interests and the media that it’s not even recognizable to the American public. Essentially, it’s become a debate about abortion over any other issue. But what strikes me is that we really haven’t heard from women in leadership positions other than the pro-choice caucus. How can we bring in more women’s voices to broaden the dialogue around healthcare reform?
MW:Part of why we haven’t heard from more women is for years — and it’s not an accident — choice was chosen as the issue to unravel. It was chosen because of the concern that Americans don’t address [gender roles], which is what Kristin Luker wrote about years ago, in Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood.
Instead of looking at the areas of most importance to all of us on healthcare, the conversation is hijacked by this central concern about whether women are going to continue to choose to be mothers. In my experience, political men don’t understand this. They really think it is about unborn life. That is not the truth. This is really about the role of women in America. We’re not seen as important enough people to have had the right wing revolve around us. But we are.
I studied family therapy for awhile and the most important time you spend with a family if you want to change that system is in identifying the problem correctly.
Ninety percent of healthcare is provided by women in the home. So, perhaps, the experts on this issue should actually talk to the American public about pre-existing conditions and whether we should have a universal payer system because we’re the ones doing it. We need to tell [those hijacking the real issue] to step aside.
RHRC: Who do you think is an authentic voice to deliver that kind of message because Americans are not getting it?
MW:I don’t think it’s a "who" but a how many of us are willing to say this. Motherhood is sacred. How many of us are willing to get out and say this is not at all about abortion. This is about whether we’re going to be mothers. For men to understand this all of us need to join in on it. Too much of the rhetoric is about abortion and not enough about women and our roles in this country. And we better get off of it or we’re not going to have a country left.
RHRC: While the debate was completely diverted to abortion we’re not talking about equity in the workplace, academic opportunities, business leadership and all the other cultural expectations that are still crystallizing around the concept of motherhood. But we fail to recognize that women have juggled multiple roles all day, everyday.
MW:Most of the women in this country have never had an opportunity to do anything but juggle. They just don’t have good places to be mothers and fathers as long as we avert the real issue — the social-cultural ideal of women as wife and mother. Going back to Tocqueville’s visit to America where he said the American people owe their great strides to women but I’ve never seen women so confined to private life. And it still exists.
Let’s get this thing identified rightly so we can move on. Nobody calls that spade. It’s not an issue I think women are willing to deliver.
Show me a woman without guilt and I’ll show you a man. Guilt has never helped us in the area of race. Guilt has never helped us in the area of women and childbearing. We’ve got to get over our guilt so we can get the policies for our children and our nation right.
RHRC: What is the biggest take away from The White House Project’s Benchmarking Women’s Leadership report in terms of moving the nation forward from a policy and political perspective?
Marie Wilson: I think the biggest take away is how much we really need to focus on holding companies and communities accountable. And holding ourselves accountable for how we invest our money, how we buy things. The problem for me, at least, is we need to have enough women in. [The report found that a critical mass of women in leadership by achieving board/executive compositions of] 33 percent makes it normal and allows change to happen. But in order for us to get those women in we have to have support from men and we have to have women to join.
Those are not small issues. The take away is that we know what to do but it takes the political will to do it.
RHRC:Now that the report is complete, what’s the one industry or two that you really want to dig into a little further? Is there something that stood out that makes you say I want to know more about this?
MW: Because of the economic crisis, I continue to think getting more women into leadership in business and finance is crucial.
We have to get global companies that are leaders, even in their weakened state, to take this on. If we don’t get more women into these businesses to change what profit is and what bottom lines are we won’t change what happens in international security and all the other sectors.
I think politics, business and media are the three [sectors] where we have to keep digging in.
RHRC:American society — primarily politics, business and the media — have always considered "women’s issues" as a ghettoized topic. Now with the economy in tatters these issues are more important than ever. How do we turn those tables and get people to take healthcare, family leave, education and economic equity more seriously?
MW:Obama is being criticized around healthcare reform because he didn’t make it an economic issue. Frankly, women have always known it was an economic issue because we have borne the brunt of healthcare. So part of what happens when a sector becomes important — whether women have been the leaders in it or the people who have most cared about it, like education, health and the environment — the things that are now coming up are the things that have been "women’s issues" for years.
And now they are the economic issues. Women have to continue to say we’re the experts. You’re seeing it in these Pew Surveys that are coming out on how they trust women as much or more than men on some of these issues. Economic security is one that women have had to take on for years. We just have to own them.
RHRC:So why does the president appear to be retreating from the bold leadership many Americans expected of him?
MW:I really feel part of this issue is his attempts to bridge this really divisive partisan gap. That has been what’s both inspiring and his downfall.
What you want to do in any course of action is choose the action with the most promising outcomes. I think what action he committed to and chose was one of being hands off and not going in and muscling [legislation] through. And giving both parties the chance actually do this together. I’m afraid betting on the most interesting and positive outcomes cost him. I really do. But it was a good try.
When you have people on one side saying "Ah, this will kill our president. This will ruin our president" and people on the other side saying "Well, I’m not voting for this I won’t get elected" you have lost the whole meaning of what it means to be a public servant.