Place in the house, but not the House

Our Turn

September 23, 1991|By BONNIE ERBE and KATE WALSH O'BEIRNE

MORE than 15 percent of the members of the just-dissolved Soviet Congress of People's Deputies were women. Yet women constitute less than 5 percent of the U.S. Congress. Are we really as advanced as we think we are when it comes to male-female equality?

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BONNIE ERBE: The long-awaited last gasps of communism provoked many stirring speeches on the floor of the Congress of People's Deputies this month. One of the most vivid, and least noticed, was delivered by Marina Rakhmanova, a pediatrician.

She pondered the future of the Soviet government and wondered whether women would be an integral part of the new, democratic form of leadership. "Women are the conscience of the nation. The woman is responsible for morality in the family, but we do not see this manifested in society. One reason for this lack of morality in our society today is the lack of contribution by women."

She went on: "Women would never permit so many weapons to be purchased as to make it possible to destroy our enemies not only once but a hundred times." She softened her message to her male colleagues by adding, "This is not to compete with you, but to ensure that the whole society is saved so that the sensible, sober voice of the woman should make itself felt in our political life."

Is the "sensible, sober voice of the woman" felt in our political life? According to a 1989 study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, based in Geneva, women made up only 4.7 percent of the membership of the U.S. Congress, but 15.4 percent of the (then-West) German Parliament, 13.2 percent of the Canadian legislature and 14 percent of the Swiss legislature.

Compared with the rest of the world, female representation at high echelons of U.S. government pales considerably. India, Pakistan, Britain, Norway and Israel have already produced women heads of state. Prime Minister Gro Brundtland of Norway presides over a cabinet where nine of the 19 members are women. Canada's supreme court bench is one-third female.

We, by comparison, have one female in a 14-member cabinet, one woman justice and no female congressional leaders. Maybe Rakhmanova's speech should give pause to U.S. leaders and voters.

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KATE WALSH O'BEIRNE: American media have frequently portrayed the long lines of patient Soviet citizens waiting to buy simple necessities in all but empty Soviet stores. We were told that the average Soviet woman spent five hours a day waiting in line, before trekking home to a one-bedroom apartment, typically shared with husband, children and in-laws. The fact that the rubber-stamp Congress of People's Deputies was composed of 15 percent women did nothing to alleviate the suffering of women (or men) in the Soviet Union.

The images of the last month were radically different. 7P Thousands of women took a stand at the barricades in front of the Russian Federation headquarters. There is every reason to believe women will now be full partners in fashioning a new system that provides both the family life and economic opportunity they yearn for,

The international comparisons of women in political office my colleague offers are essentially meaningless. If it weren't prohibited by our Constitution, conservative Margaret Thatcher could probably be elected president of the United States. But liberal Patricia Schroeder couldn't be. Their relative success as candidates has nothing to do with their gender and everything to do with their politics.

Every two years, we're told that a record number of women are seeking elective office. There are logical reasons why so few are elected. First, owing to the enormous advantage enjoyed by incumbents, most challengers, male and female, are unsuccessful. Second, far too many female candidates run on liberal platforms they have a tough time selling to the electorate.

More women will be elected to office when they wage campaigns that address issues of major importance to both male and female voters -- the over-taxation of the American family, unsafe neighborhoods, the stagnant economy and poor schools.

What Soviet women want is what American women are gradually being deprived of. They want the right to choose to be full-time mothers, which is only possible when families are freed of the financial penalties of excessive government.

Bonnie Erbe is legal affairs correspondent for the Mutual/NBC Radio Network. Kate Walsh O'Beirne is vice president of government relations at the Heritage Foundation.

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