Last week it was announced that three Senate Republicans, all women, would vote against a straight repeal of Obamacare. Many are calling this “revenge of the women” for not being included in the drafting process for the replacement healthcare bill. Whether their actions are motivated by revenge or the desire to not remove health insurance from 32 million people, the creation of the deeply unpopular healthcare bill demonstrates why electing women to a legislature is not enough. Excluding them from crafting major legislation differentiates descriptive representation—the percentage of women—from substantive representation: women’s participation in and impact on the policymaking process.
Trumpcare is a prime example of how a lack of input from women in policymaking can threaten women’s health and reproductive rights. The failed bill, drafted by 13 men, made insurance coverage for abortion extremely difficult, even for those with private health insurance. The plan prohibited individuals and small businesses who receive tax credits from buying plans that cover abortion. This was predicted to make many insurers drop abortion coverage altogether. Unlike the Affordable Care Act, the policy did not require insurance to cover essential services like contraception, prenatal and maternity care, mammograms and several services that women use more than men. It cut federal funding for Planned Parenthood and for Medicaid, which covers almost half of all births in the country.
An all-male committee leaves women’s needs in the hands of men who do not understand or prioritize them. In March, regarding the forthcoming health care legislation, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said, “Well, I think if you’re an older man, you can generally say you’re not going to need maternity care.” The same month, Senator Pat Roberts, a Republican from Kansas, joked to a reporter that he “wouldn’t want to lose my mammograms.” Demonstrating a lack of understanding of how the health care system works, these comments are indicative of how dangerous the attitudes of men in power can be without the balance of women’s voices.
Perhaps if the process had included the five female Republican Senators, it would have produced a different bill. While all women don’t share the same concerns and gender intersects with other identities in important ways, substantive gender representation is essential to fair legislation. Across the globe, historical marginalization has created similar experiences for women. Regardless of party affiliation, female political representatives bring different perspectives and priorities. The Inter-Parliamentary Union surveyed female politicians from 65 countries and found that 90% said that they felt they had a special obligation to represent the interests of women.
The number of women in legislatures has become a key indicator of a country’s progress toward gender equality. Several studies have also found that women are more aware of and likely to include the interests of other people in their work, so when elected, they are likelier to consider the needs of women, the elderly, children, minorities, the disabled and other disadvantaged groups. Women are also more inclined to advocate measures in the areas of childcare, education, welfare, the environment—and, fittingly, health and reproduction.
Women legislators do not only benefit women and so-called “women’s issues.” They benefit entire nations and international relationships. Part of it is a numbers game: when governments pull from the entire talent pool instead of just half of it, they will see more skilled representatives take office, reducing the waste of human resources and improving the quality of governance. Female legislators are generally less militaristic and more supportive of non-violence and peace, and women’s representation has been shown to make peace more sustainable. Female lawmakers also create a more collaborative political environment within and across parties. They improve accountability and communication, strengthening the democratic process.
Regardless, it shouldn’t be necessary to make a case for women’s representation through the benefits that it brings. Representation is a right, a central aspect of citizenship and democracy. Women are already underrepresented in the House and the Senate, making up only 19.3 percent and 21 percent of those bodies, respectively. When they are excluded from some of the legislature’s most important work, women are not truly represented and the democracy is not entirely legitimate. There are many lessons to learn from Trumpcare’s failure, and perhaps the most important one is that women must be included in the policymaking process.
Marie Wilken is a Communications Interns for the Global Justice Center. She attends Smith College where she served as the Senior Copy Editor for the Sophian, Smith College’s newspaper.