Is there anyone who isn't impressed with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords?
There are, of course, those who would disagree with her political views. But the Arizona Democrat has shown remarkable courage, optimism, and determination as she recovers from a bullet wound to the head she received while meeting with constituents a year ago. Even in Washington's hyper-partisan environment, the support for Giffords was bipartisan and genuine. House Speaker John Boehner (unfairly slammed for not making it to the memorial service for those killed in the shopping center attack) gave a beautiful speech on the floor, pointing out the critical truth that an attack on one member of Congress was an attack on all of them. President Obama delivered a powerful and moving address at the memorial service for the slain. And while election-year politics have kept Washington in its bitterly divided state, there is universal and sincere concern for Giffords.
The congresswoman, who announced recently she would step down from her seat to focus on her recovery, is an example of extraordinary fortitude and commitment to public service. She is also a woman, a fact that seems utterly insignificant in comparison to the ordeal she has endured, and the questions the episode raises about guns, political comity, and dealing with mental illness. But her departure from the Congress means the loss of another woman from a chamber that is still wildly unrepresentative of females, who are a majority of the population.
Just 73 of the 435 House members are female (and three more women are non-voting delegates). It would be easy to place the blame for that on pure sexism, but a recent study indicates that women can be their own worst enemy in succeeding in politics. It's not that the women aren't qualified; it's that women tend to think they aren't qualified, even if they have relevant experience. Women, according to the American University study, are also turned off by gender bias in the political arena and are more likely than men to reject the realities of modern campaigning. (That's a shame, since women could bring changes to the way campaigns are run.) Women are also more risk-averse and less confident about succeeding in a competitive environment, the AU study showed.
The political parties could do a better job of encouraging women to run, but the basic drive has to come from the candidates themselves. There is a two-word answer to smart, educated, committed women who worry they are not qualified to be in Congress: Gabby Giffords. She will be missed on the Hill. Perhaps other women will be inspired to make the commitment Giffords has made to public service.