Where Were the Women at the Health-Care Summit?

Lots of men in the room, nothing accomplished. Dan Rather on the need to get more females in positions of power in America and around the world.

Shawn Thew / Getty Images

Much has been made about how little agreement and goodwill emerged from the recent health-care summit. And perhaps that was to be expected. But something struck me before any of the opening statements were read or the debate got under way: Where were all the women?

To be sure, some were in the room, most notably Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of Health and Human Services, and Nancy Pelosi, the first woman Speaker of the House. The Republicans had one female attendee, Rep. Marsha Blackburn from Tennessee, and the Democrats had three others: Nancy-Ann DeParle, the White House health-care adviser, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, and New York Rep. Louise Slaughter. That’s it. Six women out of 42 attendees on a piece of legislation that deals with health care, an issue that affects all Americans. (You can also make the case about racial diversity, but that’s a topic for another column.)

If you were to rank countries by the percentage of women in their national legislatures, the U.S. would be somewhere around 75th, on par with places like Turkmenistan and Albania.

If more women were in the room, might the debate have been different? If there were more women in Congress (which is around 17 percent female), might our politics be less rancorous and might our elected officials get more accomplished? There’s a school of thought that is emerging that suggests the answer is yes.

In January, a remarkable group of women from around the world came to the United States for an annual leadership program run by Swanee Hunt, who was the U.S. ambassador to Austria in the 1990s. Hunt founded a nonprofit organization that runs what she calls the Institute for Inclusive Security. It includes two weeks of workshops at Harvard University, where she teaches a public-policy class. It then culminates in a trip to Washington for more workshops and a chance to meet some of the heads of our own government.

I joined the group in Washington and then sat down for a wide-ranging discussion with Hunt and four attendees for my weekly news magazine program on HDNet, Dan Rather Reports. (The roundtable discussion will air this Tuesday at 8 p.m. Eastern.) The topic was women as promoters of peace in regions gripped by war, and the guests came from Rwanda, Bosnia, Pakistan, and Lebanon. Each of these countries has seen civil strife lead to brutal and bloody conflicts that, in their wake, have left levels of distrust that force us to put our own political divisions into context.

In my discussion with these women, however, I heard optimism. They were resolved to play a role in leading their countries to a better future, and they shared some remarkable stories of how women came together to bridge religious and ethnic divisions.

Hunt has made promoting women in government her life’s work. She shared examples from other countries and academic studies that suggest that when women are included in the political process, whether it is peace negotiations or in elected office, policies change.

To be sure, there are plenty of men in leadership who are willing to negotiate and who work for peace. And if women rise to political power around the world, there will be more examples of them becoming autocratic leaders. But even while the study of women’s roles in government is still a relatively new discipline, and even though much of the evidence is anecdotal, a lot of this does make common sense. Think of the women protesting in the streets of Tehran. Think of the women risking their lives to study in Afghanistan. Think of the poor girls sold into sexual slavery in Southeast Asia. Few would argue that the world would be a better place if women like these, and countless others around the globe, had more power.

It is not original to say that improving women’s rights is the moral imperative of this new century, but it is a belief I wholeheartedly endorse. And it is heartening to see that from the U.S. State Department to the Department of Defense, our national leadership in both political parties considers improving the lot of women around the globe to be good policy as well as the right thing to do.

But it is also important to remember that we here in the United States have a lot of work to do. If you were to rank countries by the percentage of women in their national legislatures, the U.S. would be somewhere around 75th, on par with places like Turkmenistan and Albania. That is unacceptable.

Getting more women elected to public office may not solve our sour political climate. But while talking to these brave women who came to Ambassador Hunt’s workshops to share their stories and learn from others, I heard of progress I could never have imagined. Many of these women are literally risking their lives by taking leadership roles in their home countries, but they are convinced that voices like theirs will help dial back extremist rhetoric, lead to practical solutions to pressing problems like education, and build trust between neighbors where none existed.

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As they told me, mothers and sisters often do know best. Perhaps a little more of that spirit in Washington would help us come together as well.

Dan Rather is anchor and managing editor of HDNet’s Dan Rather Reports, which this week, beginning Tuesday night, is airing an investigative report on the problem of private prisons. For 24 years, he served as anchor and managing editor of the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather. His books include The American Dream, Deadlines and Datelines, The Camera Never Blinks, and The Palace Guard.