by Elizabeth Churaman, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group
Have you ever done something that was expected of you, but that may not have aligned with what you really felt like doing? Welcome to how you might feel all the time if you ever choose a path in politics. It was said many times to me I must know myself before I was to come into the tumultuous world of the Capitol as a University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work legislative intern. That I needed to know my values and not lose myself in the ocean of opinion and influence.
As I’ve come into the fold so to speak, it’s become increasingly clear that it’s not necessarily you as an individual that is making any “difference” or “change” in the Capitol. You work for your boss, and you express your boss’s interests. Period.
Beyoncé said in her poem Denial, “I tried to change. Closed my mouth more. Tried to be soft, prettier. Less… awake.”The first time I heard these lines, they resonated through me. As a woman, especially being a child of immigrants, there were certain things that were “expected” of a female child that were not explicitly expressed to boys. I find these expectations to be in the Capitol as well.
The air of an old boys’ club is alive and well, from chewing tobacco on the House floor to the not-so-hushed chatter as a young, female intern walks by a group of men. There is an expectation of subdued-ness by women, and a “yes man” complex that permeates the staff of the Capitol. I wouldn’t say it’s exclusive for female staffers, but most male staff seem to get away with much more.
Historically, women have been perceived as emotionally-driven creatures. You can see this in hearings, in particular – when there is some type of testimony which could warrant emotional reaction, there is a distinct hesitation on the part of the women representatives to comment or engage the witness. Even today, there is still some consensus that “emotions don’t belong in politics,” when in reality, most policy is made based on emotion. A good example of this in the Texas Legislature is the Born Alive bill being voted on in the House at this very moment. Advocates, religious proponents, even young children came from across the state to state their opinions and perspectives in the bill’s hearing before the Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee. Testimony was meant to be emotional, raw, and absolutely dripping in persuasion. Who would be able to ignore a small child younger than ten pleading into a microphone that abortions are sad, and we need to save all the babies? Emotions are always at play in the legislature, no matter what may be said about unbiased or unmoved voting being a pillar of our state’s democracy. Not being taken seriously and being seen as overly emotional are things I can see people struggling with in the Capitol even today.
In the 2018 elections, it was pointed out by Evan Smith, editor-in-chief of the Texas Tribune, that not only the country, but the state saw a “Pink Wave” in the ballot box; a slew of women coming to take the bull by the horns, so to speak. There has been a reborn sense of what it means to be a woman in policy, especially apparent in the Texas House. Twelve seats flipped from Republican to Democratic, eight of which were flipped by women, including three flipped by women of color. There are many new faces in the House, with many women in their thirties, a prime position for creating long and fruitful careers in Texas Lege. Women are no longer feeling alienated in the realm of policy but are coming to embrace the chaotic good that politics can be.
In the realm of everyday life, it’s an apparent subconscious belief that women are the “weaker” of the sexes, a softer, more delicate person in nature. It’s apparent in pink razors, lavender breeze body wash, and soft rose scented candles. The gendering of products reinforces the notion that women are the “weaker” of the sexes, something to be protected or preserved, something that needs to be shielded from the audacities of the world. The view that women can be influenced or must be “softer” in the sense of legislation is something that is rapidly changing in public view. On one hand, as more women create and pass legislation that is impactful and meaningful to the people of Texas, there will be momentum for more women to come into the world of policy in the Texas House. On the other hand, it seems like the House is unable currently to keep up with these changing times, with its air of the old boys’ club, big boots, and big egos in the capitol. With the changes on the forefront of ballot boxes, however, soon enough we may see some more heavy hitting changes here under the pink dome.