A libertarian man's surprising proposal: Gender quotas!

John Marshall of Montana wants to require his state legislature to have equal numbers of men and women. Here's why

Published December 8, 2013 5:00PM (EST)

  (Wikimedia/AP/Jose Luis Magana)
(Wikimedia/AP/Jose Luis Magana)

There are many causes associated with libertarians: austerity, privacy, small government, to name a few. But a libertarian man in Montana is pushing a less likely proposal: mandatory gender quotas in electoral representation. John Marshall, a businessman and writer, recently submitted a proposed constitutional amendment that would require both houses of the Montana Legislature to have evenly divided representation among men and women. If the proposal does pass, it could radically restructure the gender dynamics in the Montana legislature and rally the nation to increase women’s representation in every branch of government.

Marshall's proposal has an uphill battle to making Montana the first state to institute such quotas. He submitted his plan for the constitutional amendment to Secretary of State Linda McCulloch’s office last month, and from there it will be subject to language review from both the Attorney General and the Montana Legislative Services Division. If it manages to make it through these preliminary hurdles, his proposal will have to garner 48,000 signatures of registered Montana voters in order to qualify for the 2014 ballot.

An unsuccessful Libertarian candidate for the Montana Senate, Marshall openly cites gender equality as an impetus for his proposal. Because women are the majority of the population, Marshall believes “they’re the rightful heirs to the reigns of political power in this country,” he said in a recent interview. He also notes that women’s negotiation skills helped fuel his decision to propose a gender quota amendment. “Women are better at sitting down and negotiating and compromising and coming up with legislation than men,” he said. There is some evidence for this, particularly in the U.S. Senate. The women of the Senate are largely credited with putting aside partisanship and helping to deliver a deal to end the recent government shutdown, and they also have regular bipartisan dinners together, a small sign of civility in the midst of ever-increasing partisan hostility.

Quotas continue to provoke the ire of conservatives, often serving as a placeholder for their disdain for minority rights. Conservative activists regularly challenge the constitutionality of affirmative action through the courts, with the conservative-majoritarian Supreme Court taking the case of whether voters can ban affirmative action as they did in Michigan. The threat of mandatory gender quotas helped to derail the Equal Rights Amendment. And conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation use the threat of quotas to attack critical civil rights legislation like Title IX, prioritizing individualism over equality. In fact, even the suggestion of more diverse electoral representation, obtained without quotas, seems to disagree with the conservative temperament. A recent ABC News-Fusion poll revealed that a meager 23 percent of Republican respondents agreed that “it would be a good thing if more women were elected to Congress.”

It raises the question: if gender quotas are associated with progressivism, why is a libertarian from Montana throwing his weight behind them?

Interestingly, in addition to his embrace of gender equality, Marshall also seems to be championing gender quotas from the unexpected point of view of enhancing states’ rights, a traditionally conservative viewpoint. “The states were originally set up to be laboratories in the experiment of democracy. We can do all kinds of things. Why not be an experiment in that case and further the ideals that were set at the founding of the nation in helping democracy grow and prosper,” Marshall said.

Despite comprising more than half of the American electorate, women still lag behind men significantly when it comes to elected representation. Women make up 28 percent of both houses of the Montana Legislature and a dismal 18.3 percent of all seats in the 113th U.S. Congress. Worldwide, women still only account for 20.4 percent of the members of parliaments. Though the 2012 election brought a record number of 20 women into the U.S. Senate, the rate of progress in women’s representation is still staggeringly slow. That’s part of why John Marshall’s proposal seems so appealing.

Gender quotas are not unheard of in democratically elected legislatures. According to The Quota Project, as of 2006, approximately 40 countries have introduced gender quotas to national parliaments. Even American allies like the United Kingdom have some version of gender quotas, wherein their political parties adopt voluntary quotas. Yet, despite the global commonality of gender quotas, they remain all but invisible in the United States.

But does an increase in women’s representation mean better representation for feminist ideals? Not necessarily. Women are not a politically monolithic group, and they occupy various points on the political spectrum, just as men do. One need look no further than Republican congresswomen Michele Bachmann and Marsha Blackburn: both are vehemently anti-choice, both oppose equal pay laws and both voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. Electing more women does not guarantee that those women will advocate for women’s rights; gender quotas could very well lead to the election of women who are overtly harsh to feminism, like Representatives Blackburn and Bachmann. Gender quotas simply guarantee more representation for women, not for feminist women.

What’s more, while a gender quota like that in Marshall’s proposal would bring significantly more women into public office, it does not guarantee an increase in the representation of minority women. According to the Center for American Women in Politics, of the 98 women serving in the 113th U.S. Congress, only 30.6 percent are women of color, and there are only two women from the LGBT community, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin. A mandatory gender quota that brings in more white, straight, cisgender women while doing little to increase the representation of marginalized women is neither feminist in nature, nor does it bring us closer to true, equal representation for all. If feminists are to advocate for mandatory gender quotas in representation, the quotas must be intersectional and help elect more marginalized women, as well.

While a gender quota like what Marshall is proposing may not dramatically increase representation for marginalized women, it could signal a radical upheaval in how campaigns are run and how policy gets made. Men still dominate leadership positions in Congress, and research has shown that young women are less likely than young men to even receive encouragement to run for political office and far less likely to ever run at all.

It remains unlikely that Marshall’s proposed constitutional amendment to institute gender quotas in the Montana state legislature will pass. Even if it makes it through the preliminary hoops, acquires enough signatures, and ends up on the 2014 ballot, it is then up to Montana voters, who currently make up the 9th most Republican state in the nation. Conservative interest groups would likely rally to try to defeat the amendment, as well.

Even so, the simple fact that a Montana libertarian has proposed gender quotas reveals that equal representation may not simply be a progressive pipe dream, but an ideal around which varying ideologies can coalesce.

By Lauren Rankin

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Editor's Pick Feminism Gender Libertarians Montana Quotas Sexism State Legislatures