Friday, March 10, 2017

Our Institutionalized Gender Discrimination

Suppose you are a woman who wants to be appointed to a vacant seat for a particular political office. But you can’t. Why? Because that position is open only to males.

It sounds discriminatory, and it is. But it’s codified into law in New Jersey.

Members of county Democratic and Republican committees are elected for four-year terms in even, non-presidential years. By law, each district within a municipality elects one male and one female member.

If a vacancy occurs, the municipal chair may appoint a party member to fill the remainder of the term, but that person’s gender must correspond to the assigned gender of the open seat. That is, if there is an existing male committee member in a district with an open seat, the new appointee must be female, and vice versa.

I’m not sure why this gender discrimination is codified into law. One prominent Democratic state legislator who is happy with the status quo told me that:

“[C]hanging the regulation that requires one male and one female for each unit of representation in the county would limit the amount of diversity that we see on county committee now. There are a number of ways those wishing to get involved in their county committee can do so without holding a seat.”

It’s true that even with recent advances, women are under-represented in elected offices. But in many South Jersey counties, as many as 50 percent of committee seats remain vacant. Assigning two women to fill unoccupied seats is one way to counter this disparity and build a bench for women aspiring to higher office.

In 1997, a New Jersey Superior Court judge declared that a similar restriction (which required that county committee chair and vice chair be of opposite genders) was unconstitutional. In that decision the court wrote:
 “While it is apparent that the statute's likely intent at the time of its passage was the remedial goal of assuring equal representation in top political party leadership of the two genders, that purpose has been largely subsumed by the pronouncements of both federal and state law striking down gender-based discrimination.”

Another factor causes us to question the appropriateness of the law. As written, the law implicitly assumes that gender is static and binary. Clearly, that is not the case. Today, we understand that gender is fluid and may occupy a spectrum of identity – it is not always solely male or solely female. How this would be applied under the current law is unknown.

For these reasons, the legislature should eliminate the provisions of NJSA 19:5-3, which sets the regulation for county committees: “The county committee shall consist of one male and one female member from each unit of representation in the county.”

Let’s fix the statute and avoid expensive court challenges to an anachronistic and unconstitutional law.

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