The Evolving Roles Of Women: A Conversation With City Councilwoman Beth Mason

Council Woman Beth Mason, Center. Photo courtesy of Hoboken411

At the Democratic National Convention, I spoke with Democratic Councilwoman Beth Mason of Hoboken, NJ, who was attending the convention as a delegate. To be sure, the ways in which sociopolitical issues impact and are impacted by women are getting a significant deal of attention during this election cycle. So I asked Mason about the roles of women in politics, the ways in which the home and career lives of women are changing, and her reaction to Ann Romney's speech and the Republican Party's attempts to win over women voters. Here is what she had to say.

Women in Politics

  In recent decades, women have certainly made strides in both politics and the media. We have more women in leadership roles than ever before. And we have innovative women like Arianna Huffington and Tina Brown founding creative, new media outlets like The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast, respectively. Women like Marissa Mayer, the new CEO of Yahoo who was hired while pregnant.

Yahoo CEO, Marissa Mayer

However, women still comprise only about 17% of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Women still earn markedly less than men. Women pay more for health insurance. We are still objectified and stereotyped by the media. We are often asked to bear more of the responsibility of raising a family than men. We're judged more harshly than men when we decide not to have children. Approximately 75% of Americans suffering from anorexia are women. Conservatives call us "sluts" when all we want is insurance coverage for our birth control. And this country still - still - has not elected a woman president.

So I asked Councilwoman Mason what she thinks the future holds for women in politics and the media. For the most part, she said, our culture is moving towards models of leadership that favor women.

"Women tend to be organizers. We're networkers. And it's coming into the time where there's not a silo and it's not a pyramid structure with that hierarchy. It's becoming more networked, people are at equal levels. Women are better adept at working on that," Mason said.


Photo courtesy of Michigan Municipal League (MML)

In politics in particular, Mason said, women's networking skills will be quite useful.

"Politics is social. It's not a business. It is a means of acting. Anytime you put two people together, it's political because you're advocating for a position. This is where women, as social networkers, should start saying, 'this behavior is not ok,'" Mason said.

However, Mason pointed out that the path women take to achieve the leadership positions in which to utilize those skills will not be easy. Often, women do not properly support one another. Mason said that, when she ran for Mayor of Hoboken in 2009, women's political organizations she had supported refused to support her because there was another woman, Dawn Zimmer, in the race. Mason told the organizations she was happy to meet with them so they could decide which candidate was more qualified and deserving of their support, but the organizations declined. Such attitudes, Mason said, not only make success more difficult for individual candidates, but also create a system in which women candidates frequently find themselves at a disadvantage.

"Do you know what happens? Once the men find this out, they just throw women into every race so you don't get any money," Mason said. Indeed, many male politicians try to maintain outdated power structures.

"Women typically - at least in New Jersey and my guess is nationwide to a certain extent - tend   to be women that the political boss structure could control. We need to start saying we don't like that," Mason said.

Photo courtesy of Jay Galvin

What's more, Mason aggressively, as they see their male counterparts doing, in order to achieve anchor positions or political office.   She pointed to the film Iron Lady, which depicts Margaret Thatcher's ascension to Prime Minister, and argues that Thatcher achieved her success, "in a man's way." However, Mason argues that this type of behavior is not necessary for women to succeed - and may actually impede those women for whom it does not come naturally.

"We don't need to be them, [men], and they don't need to be use. We both have roles to play," Mason said.

Overall, Mason believes that women are in a strong position to take on more leadership roles and to influence the course of American society.

"I think the country is moving into a place where we're tired of all the bickering and back and forth...The way we think about politics has to change and I think women are going to be able to direct it. We've got 50 percent of the population," Mason said.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, photo courtesy of Sen. Jay Rockefeller

Having it All

Women, of course, are often asked whether they believe they can have it all. This is not a question often asked of men - as if their responsibilities as fathers are the side dish and their careers the entree. So I asked Mason how she thinks the home and career lives of women are evolving.

One of the biggest obstacles facing women, Mason said, is the difficulty in returning to the workforce for those women who take time away from work to raise small children.

"Leadership roles in major industries are a challenge because, here again, women tend to be home with the kids and we've seen with the economic situation, getting back in the workforce is difficult...It's very difficult to raise your kids and not have a nanny or somebody else that's there. You stay home and you're home for however many years and trying to get back in the workforce is almost impossible," Mason said.

Photo courtesy of Ed Yourdon

Mason, who has worked for advertising agencies believes that those agencies, along with many other media institutions, have sold women on an ideal of success that is unattainable. But it's not just women. Men have been sold the message that a life well lived means one has attained power and prestige. Some of those men who have not lived up to those unrealistically high standards are becoming embittered and, Mason suggests, turning to conservative politics.

"America's in a midlife crisis," Mason said. "An older man who's only at a mid-level all of a sudden isn't worth anything anymore. And that's where you're getting some of the Tea Party people. These white males who were told they can have that. They had to have the house and this and that. The advertising world created this image that no one can live up to, and we've got to change that together," Mason said.

So how do raise our daughters to challenge themselves in a way that is psychologically and emotionally balanced? As a mother of two daughters, Mason believes the key is reforming our education system. Mason believes that our current system fails to encourage our children to be inquisitive and instead encourages the memorization of facts.

"Our school system is too test-oriented. Tests are about coming at you and answering a question. It is not about, 'here's something, why does it work that way?' Why are we rewarding schools for testing, when that's only 'do you have the basic information?' It's not about how you get from A to Z," Mason said.

Photo courtesy of mirimcfly

Republicans and Women

At the recent Republican National Convention, Ann Romney gave a speech largely intended to convince women that the party appreciates their needs and priorities. At one point in the speech, Romney declared, "I love you, women!"

But when we look at the issues, it becomes clear that the Republican party is not woman-friendly. Most poignantly this year, Republicans have shown their lack of understanding about women in their attitudes about women's reproductive health.

"Now we have issues where women can't even control their personal wellbeing...Why are we having old arguments? We're trying to rehash things," Mason said.

So what does the Democratic Party need to do to make it clear to voters that the Republican Party is simply pandering? According to Mason, nothing.

Photo courtesy of Timothy Krause

"I think we just need to be out there saying, 'look, it's about who controls your body and your choice.' The Republican Party makes an argument that there should be less government, so how can you say there should be less government, yet impose more on personal wellbeing. I think it's pretty simple, we don't even need to say it's one versus the other. Just let people make their own decisions," Mason said.

So often in politics, what we see is the power plays. We see stalemates, political boxing matches, and ignorance. It was refreshing to talk with Mason, whose thoughtful insights present a productive way forward for women in politics and in American society at large.