Between the Lines

The long ordeal will be over soon.

South Dakotans, currently evenly divided it would appear, will select either Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, the incumbent, or Kristi Noem, her challenger, to represent our state in Congress.

I'm not about to advise you on who I think you should vote when it comes time on Tuesday to select between these two women. I made up my mind a long time ago, and judging from voter surveys, taken month after month leading up to election day, with statistics that only change one or two percentage points each time, I think it's safe to say that most South Dakotans have, too.

It didn't dawn on me until last Tuesday, as I watched Noem and Herseth Sandlin, and B.Thomas Marking, the independent House candidate who has simply been tagging along, his campaign gaining no traction, of what the rather historic nature of what has been going on right under our noses.

South Dakotans are about to choose between two women to serve in one of the highest political offices one can ever hope to seek. In South Dakota. Sheesh.

Kudos to South Dakota. I know we constantly seem to be on the bottom of national rankings when it comes to stuff like, oh, wages and population density and other stats that are used as benchmarks in other states.

But we appear to be way above the curve when it comes to recognizing that it may not be such a bad thing to look to women for political leadership in this country.

Our political candidates have noted the challenges facing our nation. What's rather unfortunate is the institution we count on to face those challenges, to fix those problems – mainly Congress – seems to be growing less effective.

I suppose you could blame partisan bickering, in part, for the ills being suffered by our legislative branch in Washington. That's why I have no great expectations that Republicans, should they gain a majority in the House or Senate or both, will have any easier time than Democrats have had the past two years.

It would do us all good to look at the make-up of Congress in a different way – beyond party politics.

There is more to social inequity than bias, and that's one reason why it's so hard to fix. Institutional structures and patterns seal differences in place. You've probably experienced that yourself a variety of times – for instance, when you first started a new job, and heard the phrase, "But we've always done it that way."

I think the number of women in the U.S. House Representatives offers a good example, too.

Out of 435 representatives, only 78 are women. That's a lot of men for a sex that makes up less than half of the U.S. population. Yet, two scholars of election data found, bias plays only a small, if crucial, part in this.

Dennis Simon of Southern Methodist University and Barbara Palmer of American University studied congressional races from 1956 through 2004 to learn why so few women have made it to Congress.

Political observers can easily guess their first finding: Men account for most congressional incumbencies, and incumbents are famously resistant to removal. In almost 11,000 congressional races the scholars studied, only 21 women beat an incumbent.

Demographic factors also affect women's bids for office. This finding is limited to white women, however: majority black districts are equally receptive to black male and black female candidates.

For white women of both parties, though, accessible districts showed distinct traits. Upscale, urban and diverse districts were most likely to elect a congresswoman. Rural, Southern districts with traditional values were least likely.

Within those guidelines, Democratic and Republican women faced different prospects. Among Republicans, Simon explained, women are always at a disadvantage in primaries that include men. "If a Republican woman runs against one or two Republican men for the nomination, regardless of her actual positions she is going to be regarded as more liberal," he said.

Should gender parity in Congress matter? If a woman and a man both represent their party's beliefs equally well, counting males and females might seem pointless.

As it turns out, women do bring a distinct character to Congress – but it's not their politics. It's their greater focus on party-neutral legislation that aids mothers and children – and a more collegial way of doing business.

"Both women and men in Congress agree," Lake said, "that there tends to be more compromise, consensus and civility when there are more women in the body."

That's just the impact of a few dozen people among hundreds. It will probably be decades before scholars can study a Congress with the same number of women lawmakers as men.

It's disappointing that South Dakotans will only be able to select one woman on Tuesday to be our representative in Congress. The nation just might be a bit better off we could send both of our female Congressional candidates to Capitol Hill.

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