Honoring Women in Politics With Big Ideas—from Lani Guinier to Stacey Abrams: Weekend Reading on Women’s Representation

Weekend Reading on Women’s Representation is a compilation of stories about women’s representation in politics, on boards, in sports and entertainment, in judicial offices and in the private sector in the U.S. and around the world—with a little gardening and goodwill mixed in for refreshment!


After graduating from college—35 years ago this week—I took a job on a U.S. Senate campaign because I thought that getting good people elected to Congress was the cure for an unhealthy democracy. But after years of working for terrific candidates at all levels of government, I realized that it wasn’t a lack of good candidates that was causing dysfunction in Washington. Rather, it was then—and still is—the infrastructure of our electoral system that prioritizes handfuls of voters in swing states, protects incumbents, and solidifies the overrepresentation of white men in politics.

Within a few years of graduating I met my husband Rob Richie and he and I began to communicate—by letter sent by the USPS—with others who were disenchanted with the antiquated American electoral system. A number of us testified at a commission on democracy organized by Eleanor Smeal and Dolores Huerta where we met luminaries in the movement for a stronger democracy like John B. Anderson and others, who like us, were ready to work for a fairer electoral system that would yield a healthy democracy.

I was part of a diverse cadre of reformers who gathered in 1992 to found what would become FairVote and launch the modern movement for voting system reform centered on representing all voters fairly through American forms of proportional representation. 

We were thrilled when then-president Bill Clinton nominated Lani Guinier to be assistant attorney for civil rights because she was an intellectual giant in the field of voting rights and representation. Guinier was a gifted scholar, a constitutional lawyer, and an enthusiastic proponent of proportional voting systems to correct the serious flaws of the American electoral system. 

But, as it turned out, Lani Guinier’s ideas about strengthening democracy by representing everyone fairly challenged the delicate sensibilities of Washington insiders who preferred the status quo.

On June 4, 1993, then-president Bill Clinton abruptly withdrew his nomination of Guiner for the position because he “had not read Guinier’s writings before nominating her.”

Former executive editor of The New Yorker magazine and longtime FairVote board member Hendrik Hertzberg wrote about Guinier’s nomination and denomination in The New Yorker in 1993:

Lani Guinier: Her Problem Was Her Ideas

There was never any doubt about Lani Guinier’s qualifications to be Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. Radcliffe and Yale Law School; a clerkship with the Chief Judge of the United States District Court in Michigan; four years’ apprenticeship as special assistant to Drew Days, who held the Justice Department’s top civil-rights job during the Carter Administration; seven years as a highly successful litigator with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund; and, most recently, five years as a respected, energetic, and popular professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School: no nominee for the post has ever been better prepared than Lani Guinier. That wasn’t her problem. Her problem was her ideas.

A Critic of Single-Member Districts

In her most important writings — four long law-review articles published between 1989 and 1993 — Ms. Guinier returns again and again to the theme of the shortcomings of the system of legislative representation that is almost universal in the United States. That system is based upon single-member, winner-take-all, geographically based electoral districts. Because she writes from the perspective of a civil-rights lawyer, her main concern is how blacks fare; and, because her specialty is the Voting Rights Act, her focus is on local government, the level of government most often affected by the Act.

Given the racial polarization that exists in our society — a condition that Ms. Guinier forthrightly recognizes, but certainly does not advocate — black legislative candidates are seldom elected except in “majority minority” single-member districts. Voting-rights lawyers have therefore concentrated on forcing local jurisdictions to create “safe” black-majority districts, and also on eliminating at-large systems that have demonstrably allowed white majorities to shut even sizable black minorities out of representation altogether.

Ms. Guinier takes a different tack. In common with many conservative, and some liberal, critics, she recognizes the moral and political costs of racial gerrymandering: while it does allow black legislatures to be elected, it creates monolithically white districts as well as monolithically black ones; it depresses political competition, voter turnout, and interracial political alliances; it depends for its effectiveness on segregated housing patterns (and, in fact, gives black politicians an incentive to perpetuate such patterns).

Sadly, Lani Guinier was not the last, or the first, woman Cabinet nominee to be vilified for her appearance, her past, her temperament and her ideas. As Maura Reilly, RepresentWomen’s advocacy and communications coordinator, wrote this week in The Fulcrum, the accusations against Guinier were troublingly similar to the smear campaign leveled at President Joe Biden’s nominee for the same position Kristen Clarke:

Last week, Kristen Clarke, following a protracted confirmation process, made history as the first woman and first Black woman to lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. This historic moment comes 28 years, almost to the day, after the withdrawal of Lani Guinier’s nomination for the same position by President Bill Clinton.

In 1993, Clinton nominated Guinier, a tenured law professor and former NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund attorney, to head up the Civil Rights Division. A former classmate of Clinton’s at Yale Law School, Guinier had worked in the division during the Carter administration before helping earn an extension of the Voting Rights Act in 1982 and becoming head of the NAACP LDF’s voting rights project.

Following her nomination in April 1993, Guinier faced increasing scrutiny and opposition over her academic writings exploring concepts of quotas in nominations, equitable power within legislative bodies and proportional representation electoral systems. In direct contrast to their content, these writings earned her the labels of “quota queen,” “anti-democratic,” “Looney Lani,” “a reverse racist,” “a madwoman” and “breathtakingly radical” from her political opponents…Rather than being “breathtakingly radical,” “looney,” or “anti-democratic,” Guinier’s writings simply illustrate the widely recognizable pitfalls of the single-member, winner-take-all electoral system used in the United States that continues to overrepresent cis, white men. Although Clinton withdrew her nomination in June 1993, Guinier did not go quietly. She spoke out in her own defense and earned national acclaim, saying, “I am a democratic idealist who believes that politics need not be forever seen as ‘I win, you lose,’ a dynamic in which some people are permanent monopoly winners and others are permanently excluded losers.”

While losing a chance to lead the Civil Rights Division, Guinier’s ideas have gained traction in the United States. More than 100 localities have resolved voting rights cases with proportional voting systems, including cases brought by the Department of Justice in New York, where Port Chester adopted cumulative voting, and in Michigan, where Eastpointe adopted the proportional form of ranked-choice voting. Rashad Robinon, president of Color of Change, affirmed the increasing relevance of Guinier’s ideas in awarding her with FairVote’s Champion of Democracy award in 2017.

Kristen Clarke’s confirmation process often mirrored that of Lani Guinier. Many of Clarke’s critics again cast her as too “radical” to hold the position, in response to Clarke suggesting more money be spent on social programs like emotional health treatment and other often overlooked and underfunded areas. Despite historic strides in recent years for women, women of color continue to be scapegoated and dismissed for common-sense and practical solutions to structural issues. But as with Guinier, Clarke may get the final word: She now runs the Civil Rights Division at a historic time, when basic issues of fair access and fair representation are at play, and where a strong protector of the Voting Rights Act is more important than ever

Lani Guinier and Richie Terrell in 2017.

Rob Richie and the team at FairVote have been staunch supporters of Lani Guinier over the years and honored her with a Champion of Democracy Award for her lifetime of achievement in 2017. Guinier was unable to accept the award in person, so former FairVote staffer Rashad Robinson, now CEO of Color of Change, presented her with the award and FairVote fellow Myeisha Boyd accepted the award on her behalf—watch the memorable exchange here.

While Lani Guinier was denied her chance to lead the civil rights division, many notable civil rights leaders have held the position and the reforms that Guinier championed have reached the mainstream. Millions of voters are now using ranked-choice voting to elect their top candidates and the Fair Representation Actthe proportional version of ranked-choice voting—is likely to be introduced in the House in the coming week by Virginia representative Don Beyer. The legislation is unlikely to pass anytime soon—despite ending gerrymandering, reducing polarization, and increasing the representation of women and people of color—but its introduction provides us an opportunity to continue the much-needed conversation that Lani Guinier so bravely started over 30 years ago. Huzzah!


There are some political openings for Black women in the coming election cycle, despite the continued challenges of split votes and an antiquated voting system. Pictured: Stacey Abrams. (Instagram)

Lani Guinier’s work was focused on voting system reforms like proportional representation because she believed that women and people of color were disadvantaged by our plurality winner-take-all voting system. This story from the Associated Press, that quotes Higher Heights CEO and ReflectUS board member Glynda Carr, suggests there are some political openings for Black women in the coming election cycle, despite the continued challenges of split votes and an antiquated voting system:

McClellan and Carroll Foy, a 39-year-old former legislator, are trying to break another barrier by becoming the first Black woman to win a governor’s race in any state. They are decided underdogs to former Gov. Terry McAuliffe in Virginia’s primary next Tuesday. Yet they’re nonetheless part of a surge in candidacies by Black women in the Democratic Party, not just for local and legislative posts but also statewide offices that are still new ground for Black women.

“We are normalizing Black women’s leadership [and] seeing Black women on every ballot, so that it’s second nature for voters,” said Glynda Carr, co-founder of Higher Heights for America, which backs Black female candidates.

In addition to Virginia, two Black women are running for U.S. Senate from North Carolina in 2022: former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley and former legislator Erica Smith. In Florida, U.S. Rep. Val Demings is running for Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s seat. In Georgia, voting rights activist and former legislative leader Stacey Abrams is expected to make a second run for governor in 2022.

Steve Schale, a white strategist who helped President Barack Obama win Florida twice, said it’s a developing consensus that Black women can assemble Democrats’ ideal alliance for statewide elections: older Black voters, younger voters across racial and ethnic lines, urban white liberals and enough white moderates, especially women, in metro areas.

“This is the next step post-Obama,” Schale said. “They can rebuild that coalition as well as anyone.”

Both Virginia candidates say Black women are right for the moment.


Melanie Stansbury won the special election to fill the seat left vacant by Deb Haaland. (Instagram)

Melanie Stansbury won the special election to fill the seat left vacant by Deb Haaland—joining two other women in the House delegation from New Mexico, according to this article in The New York Times:

Melanie Stansbury, a Democrat, won a landslide victory in a special House election in New Mexico on Tuesday, claiming the seat previously held by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and easily turning back a Republican effort to make the race a referendum on rising crime in the Albuquerque-based district.

Just after midnight Eastern time, Ms. Stansbury, a state representative, had captured 60 percent of the vote, while her Republican rival, Mark Moores, had won 36 percent.

Her dominating performance represented an early vote of confidence in Democratic leadership in a heavily Hispanic district and could quiet some anxiety in the party about its prospects going into the 2022 midterm elections.

An environmental policy expert who has worked as a congressional and White House aide, Ms. Stansbury emphasized economic fairness, the urgency of addressing climate change and the importance of Democrats’ retaining their four-seat House majority.


Maryland House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (left). (Twitter)

Maryland, unlike New Mexico, has no women in the congressional delegation and—as Julie Statland, founder of Riveting Womenwrites in The Washington Post—gatekeepers must step up and recruit and support more women candidates to correct that imbalance:

Well, it happened again. Another academic claimed the reason women do not win is because they do not run and women do not want to run for higher political office in Maryland.

Maryland House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), the highest-ranking woman in Maryland politics and the first woman and Black person to hold the post, might disagree. So might Del. Anne Kaiser (D-Montgomery), chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Del. Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s), vice chair of the Health and Government Operations Committee, actually ran for Congress.

Women are not limiting themselves from higher political office.

Don’t believe it? Follow the funding and endorsements of Peña-Melnyk in her campaign for Maryland’s 4th Congressional District in 2016. She raised more than $890,000 through smaller donations, with little from unions, political action committees and businesses. Those “validators” chose Anthony G. Brown, the eventual winner, and Glenn Ivey. Brown, the former two-term lieutenant governor, lost the governor’s race in 2014. Ivey, a former Prince George’s County state’s attorney, had not held elected office since 2011.

Peña-Melnyk, a trailblazing, prolific lawmaker, had passed a host of substantive health, mental health and prescription drug reform measures and authored legislation allowing Ivey to hire more staff attorneys to prosecute crime in Prince George’s.

Two years later, former delegate Aruna Miller, a 2018 candidate for Maryland’s 6th Congressional District, was out-funded by David Trone by more than $10 million (mostly self-financed). Roger Manno, then a state senator, picked up at least half of the union endorsements even though no one considered him the front-runner.

Two male candidates, one a multimillionaire, received the most money and the most endorsements from political influencers.

In labor jargon, female candidates are more victims of a lockout than a strike. Women definitely want to run, but the environment is not woman-friendly in Maryland — and I’m being polite.


The title of this piece, “Gender Equality is Also a Man’s Job,” written by the Swedish ambassador to South Korea, Jokob Hallgren, caught my eye and is worth a read and a retweet!

The Swedish Government that I serve pursues a feminist foreign policy. Sweden established this policy in 2014 after many years of promoting gender equality and human rights nationally and internationally. Since Sweden adopted the feminist foreign policy, there has been a shift in the culture in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and in the Embassies. The knowledge and interest have grown and today all colleagues relate to and actively support this policy simply because it makes so much sense. It includes the civil servants in Stockholm, the diplomats, the local staff, administrators, everybody.

These days, we don’t have one ambassador for our feminist foreign policy — we are hundreds. Sweden’s feminist foreign policy is based on the commitment of building a society in which women and men can live their lives to their fullest potential based on the three R’s: Representation, Rights and Resources. Women’s rights are of course human rights but also a matter of democracy and justice. We also believe that gender equality is a necessary prerequisite to sustainable and peaceful societal challenges and to the evolving modern welfare state — based on justice and sustainable economic development for all. Women and men should have the same power to shape societies and their own lives. When it comes to representation, it is quite unfortunate that half of the world’s population is still underrepresented in so many areas — as voters, as politicians, as experts, as judges, as leaders in organizations, in industry and in academia.
 
While stressing that Sweden is definitely not a paradise, I believe that one of the success factors of Swedish society, despite its modest population and peripheral location, is the focus on gender equality. For most Swedes, gender equality is only natural and it means that everyone, regardless of gender, has the right to work and support themselves, to find a balance between career and family life, and to live and love without the fear of abuse or violence. At the end of the day I think it comes down to common sense, that we need to fully utilize the potential of our entire population — both men and women.
 
During my three years in the Republic of Korea, I see a clear trend of a growing interest in addressing gender equality. I am glad to note that gender equality also has become a center piece in the bilateral relation between Sweden and the Republic of Korea for quite some time. One example of this is the cooperation with the Ministry of Gender Equality and Families which was formalized through a Memorandum of Understanding during the visit of the Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven to the Republic of Korea in 2019.
 
We still have a long way to go before achieving full gender equality, in Sweden, in the Republic of Korea and all over the world. However, I see encouraging trends in the Republic of Korea. It is clear that many younger people will accept nothing less than equal opportunities for men and women, both at work and at home. I look forward to working together with all committed South Koreans to strengthen women’s representation and make women’s expertise visible. Achieving gender equality is not the sole responsibility of gender experts but of everyone — men and women alike. And I do think that we men have a special responsibility to do our part of the job in making it happen. Let’s just do it. I will be happy to share our experiences in that process.


Many thanks to the terrific team of Spring 2021 interns who made many valuable contributions to our work at RepresentWomen! Thank you!


The team at RepresentWomen is featuring great LGBTQ reads in honor of Pride Month:


That’s all for this week,
Cynthia

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About

Cynthia Richie Terrell is the founder and executive director of RepresentWomen and a founding board member of the ReflectUS coalition of non-partisan women’s representation organizations. Terrell is an outspoken advocate for innovative rules and systems reforms to advance women’s representation and leadership in the United States. Terrell and her husband Rob Richie helped to found FairVote—a nonpartisan champion of electoral reforms that give voters greater choice, a stronger voice and a truly representative democracy. Terrell has worked on projects related to women's representation, voting system reform and democracy in the United States and abroad.