Like many Americans, I’ve been thinking a lot about the loss of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and how her absence on the court will affect the progress she made toward gender equality. Without knowing who will fill the vacant seat on the court, we cannot predict the outcome of future cases. What we can do instead is evaluate the inequality that surrounds us in everyday life.
Puzzles and pyramids
It is often the smallest piece of the puzzle that goes overlooked the longest. No matter how excited we were to have had the first major-party female presidential candidate in 2016, no matter how thrilled we are that every election brings new female members of congress, no matter how many women become mayors, our ability to maintain a steady stream of suitable candidates for high offices is hampered by our lack of gender equality at the most basic level of precinct representation.
It’s the smallest piece of the puzzle. We see it in play in our everyday lives, usually without considering its crucial role in not only the upward flow of candidates but in the mindset of both voters and those who govern at every level.
Think of the American political system as a pyramid. The pyramid rests on a broad base of tiny precincts across the entire country, each with representation in our city and county (parishes in Louisiana; boroughs in Alaska) government.
Election as a city or county commissioner or council member is often a candidate’s first exposure to the political system. These are also the governmental positions most likely to have a direct and meaningful effect on us as individuals. They often hold both executive and legislative authority.
Our attitude about those who govern us begins with these representatives. Who do we trust? Who do we feel is most qualified to represent us? This is the place where unintentional gender bias can do the most harm.
Imagine a 60-year-old man who has never been governed by a woman at the local level in his entire voting life. No woman ever ensured his road remained free of potholes. No woman sets the budget for how his taxes will be spent. No woman processes bids for new county dump trucks. No woman speaks her mind from a position of authority at the commissioner’s meetings. How will that man feel about voting for a woman for president?
This man is not imaginary. There are millions like him across our country, most of them in rural counties because while women have few barriers to election as city council members, the same is not true at the county level.
The boys rule the counties in Texas
The number one problem in righting any inequity in our country is that lasting change must come from within the flawed systems that create inequity. It’s a cycle that can be almost impossible to break because existing systems not only perpetuate themselves, they often contain easily manipulated defenses against intruders. My own county is a good example.
In Texas, counties have multiple options for how the roads are managed within the county, but in its simplest explanation, county commissioners are responsible for them, either directly or through oversight of a road supervisor or engineer. My county historically used a system where each commissioner is responsible for building and maintaining the roads and bridges in his own precinct. The job involves ordering gravel, buying graders, and direct supervision of the crews at the road “barn.”
It is a system fraught with gender inequity. Can you imagine our 60-year-old guy as a farmer entrusting the roads he needs to deliver his crops to a woman? Not likely in my county and maybe not in yours. A number of years ago, a grassroots effort led to a county-wide vote for a change to a system where the commissioners' court hires and supervises a road engineer. The ballot initiative was to resolve financial inequities in the system, but the side effect was that it opened the position of county commissioner not only to women who were previously reluctant to run for the office if the primary day-to-day duty was managing the road crew.
But before the next election cycle could take place, the commissioners who had opposed the change (yes, the one approved by a majority of the voters in the county) first drug their feet in hiring a road engineer then eventually hired one who did not last in the job, all while they took a hands-off approach to the roads for more than a year.
Because nobody was tending to the roads, citizens became angry, making it easy to accomplish a backlash ballot initiative returning the county to its previous system. The roads were saved; Democracy prevailed; women lost hard-fought ground. I might add here that not only does the system eliminate women who are highly qualified to govern in terms of budgets, bids, policy-making, and real estate transactions, it eliminates candidates of any gender who have no desire to spend the majority of their time in office managing hundreds of miles of dirt roads.
The obvious argument is that the job is what it is. It’s clearly laid out in the Texas Local Government Code. Take it or leave it. Except that, as important as roads are in rural counties, the legal and financial transactions the same commissioners hold power over are far more important for most people. In my county, the four men who supervise roads and bridges set the property tax rates. I enjoy the smooth road to my house, but it does not determine my financial survival in difficult times. The tax rate does.
It’s endemic in much of rural America
A bit of quick research turned up few women holding county precinct leadership positions, particularly in counties with lower populations. In Ohio, there are forty-three female county commissioners out of 280 total (15%). Only seven of those are in counties with populations below 60,000.
Kansas has thirty-nine female county commissioners out of 354 total (11%). Kansas primarily relies on a system of 3–5 commissioners per county. Wyandotte County is home to Kansas City, where an eleven-member panel governs. Five of the eleven are currently women.
That gives hope for counties that utilize larger panels of elected representatives, but in Wisconsin, where large boards of supervisors govern each county, I found counties like Burnett County. Of twenty-one district seats on the board, women currently hold two (9.52%). The population of Burnett County is just over 15,000. Women account for 48.8% of the overall population.
In New Jersey (which recently voted to change the name of the precinct-level representatives from “freeholders” to “commissioners,” effective next year), the average county uses a board of five or seven freeholders. I checked ten counties randomly and found men outnumber women on all but one board. The populous Middlesex County has a fifty-fifty split among their board, including some of the only women of color I encountered in all my research. Again, in New Jersey, the more rural the county, the fewer women are elected.
Even in the least populous counties I surveyed, women held elected positions as treasurers, tax collectors, and clerks. The numbers of elected positions as judges and attorneys, however, match those of county commissioners and supervisors; the lower the population, the less likely the county is to elect a female county judge or attorney.
The fact that the bias extends well beyond the commissioner as “ex officio road commissioner” of my home county, and includes states without such inequitable job descriptions, points to gender bias among rural voters at potentially all levels.
This leads us back to the problem of how to break the cycle. If women are less likely to be voted into these offices, change at the lower level becomes close to impossible. At the state level, Texas women hold 36 of 150 seats in the House of Representatives and 10 of 31 seats in the Senate. Only two of those women represent rural districts. Improving the ability of women to hold county commissioner positions in rural counties will never be a top priority for them, even if they could miraculously stir up the votes.
As with most things in gender bias, the first step is awareness. It’s important to know where the gender bias snags are within your own neighborhood. Why aren’t women elected? Is it because of an archaic job description?
The fight for change doesn’t always need to come from the top. We will miss RBG, but there’s plenty of work still to be done here, and it begins at the bottom.