At a time when political tensions are high and the number of women in elected office is low, I asked Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers, the hosts of the podcast Pantsuit Politics, for their takes on how partisanship and women’s representation influence one another. With Holland on the left side of the political spectrum and Silvers on the right, the show features what their website calls, “grace-filled political conversations.” Since Holland and Silvers have been talking politics (politely) on the air since November 2015, they seemed like the perfect people to ask about where our society’s political conversations are taking us in terms of women’s representation.
Women currently make up about 24 percent of Congress, the U.S. ranks 78 globally for women’s representation in government, and we have yet to have a woman president. Why is important for us to elect more women?
Holland: Sister Joan, who’s this amazing Catholic nun — she’s been on Oprah several times — said whenever we are trying to solve a problem and we only have men around the table, it’s like we have one hand tied behind our back. It’s not that a male perspective is bad, it’s just that it’s stunted. If you’re talking about problems that face men and women and you only have men working on the solutions, they’re just by design going to be short-sighted. They’re going to miss some facets and perspectives on the problem and what solutions are available to us. And that’s not just true for gender, that’s true for all kinds of identities and experiences, and so the more diverse perspectives we have when we’re trying to tackle something hard, the better chances we’ll have.
Silvers: I think that women are uniquely good at bringing more voices to the table and understanding what Sarah just said. I think that we will have a greater sense of representation overall when we have more women in leadership. Women tend to be good peacemakers, very pragmatic in the way that they move forward on issues, and less ideological overall, and I think that those are things that our government sorely needs. You can see the impact of not having had enough of that perspective in leadership over time, so for all of those reasons I think that women in leadership is critical for our democracy.
As people from different sides of the political spectrum, how do you differ (or not) in your views of what methods we should be using to elect more women?
Holland: I don’t think there’s much difference between us in what methods we use. We’re facing a very different problem with regards to our parties, and I’ll let Beth speak to that. The Democratic Party has a lot more infrastructure and a lot more success recruiting female candidates. You could opine for two centuries about why that is, but I participated in one of the programs, which was Emerge America, and I think that sort of [recruitment and training] infrastructure is vital. I wish we had more of that in the Republican Party.
Silvers: I think that Sarah and I both agree on the structural barriers to electing more women and how important it is that we remove those barriers through things like ranked choice voting, but also that we mobilize more women to contribute to campaigns and to just run for office. I do think in the Republican Party we particularly have a problem in our primaries. I would love to see more states with open primaries because I think that one barrier is the number of people voting in Republican primaries is kind of consolidating around a very core ideology that you’re not going to see in a lot of women candidates. Until we get more women out of primaries, we can’t have more elected Republican women in office, and so I think the intensity and focus that needs to be brought to solving this problem is especially important on the Republican side of the aisle.
What role do you think increased bipartisanship in our political culture and conversations could play in getting women elected?
Holland: I think if we’re talking about systematic changes like ranked choice voting, when everyone is completely disengaged from the process because of the type of conversation, then it’s very difficult to empower people to make big systematic changes like that. And so any sort of real systematic changes that could elect more women has to begin with getting everybody involved in the process. But I think particularly women are turned off by the type of conflict that is happening between us as Americans right now.
Silvers: I think our political system works ideally when it’s relationship-based. It’s about the relationships that voters have with their elected officials and the relationships those elected officials have with one another, and women thrive in relationship-based environments. I think the difficulty right now is that we’re not approaching politics through the lens of relationship. We’re focusing on it through the lens of competition and conflict, as Sarah said. So to me, the kinds of conversations that we have, because we’re looking at it through the lens of values or morality or law, being able to discuss it in a respectful way that makes room for all perspectives — even if we don’t believe that all those perspectives are equal — I think it does invite more people into the conversation, and it says, I can strongly disagree with you here but we can still be in a relationship with each other.
Republican women and women of color are consistently underrepresented in politics. How can these groups work together to increase their representation?
Holland: I would say that women across the board are underrepresented and there are definitely specific subsets that struggle harder with fundraising. There are specific subsets that struggle more with party support, there are organizations that are dedicated to increasing the number of women across the board, there are other organizations that are dedicated to Democratic women, and there are organizations that are dedicated to Democratic women of color. You can’t really paint with such a broad brush as all women. These conflicts and the challenges are all different based on where you live. The challenges Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez faced and the challenges [2018 House of Representatives candidate] Amy McGrath faces, they’re different, and we have to acknowledge that and talk through that and see what sort of different, diverse, specific solutions will work, instead of just trying to talk in big strokes about women in politics and women running for office.
Silvers: Where there are differences and conflicts among women, I think that’s super valuable and it’s important to air those issues out and let us work on each other in those ways. I think for so long, the entire landscape of political discussion has been defined by the conflicts that exist among men. So where we’re able to show that women are not homogenous and it’s not just the geographic issues that are very real that Sarah mentioned, but also there are real, valid differences of opinion among women about different topics, we’re still bringing a perspective that hasn’t been brought to the table before. I think all that’s really healthy.
Anything else to add?
Holland: It doesn’t end once a woman is elected, and there needs to be a lot of support and a lot of continued attention to women serving in public office.
Silvers: I think that sometimes when we talk about bipartisanship, there is a segment of the population that sort of tunes out because they rightly see certain issues in America right now as transcending even our most noble aims for civility, and I understand that. I don’t think that more women in office solves every problem, and I don’t think bipartisanship solves every problem. I do think that having a truly representative government requires women of every party being represented in the halls of Congress, in the executive branch, and in our governor’s mansions across the country. So while I understand people’s frustration with partisanship right now, I think the answer cannot just be to get lots more Democratic women elected to office. It has to be much broader than that.
Listen to Holland and Silvers in new episodes of Pantsuit Politics on Tuesdays and Fridays on their website, or your podcast player of choice.
This interview was edited for length and clarity. Graph data is from the Center for American Women and Politics.