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A Woman's Place: The House, Senate and Cabinet

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Message Elayne Clift
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A record number of women won seats in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives in the 2008 election, a noteworthy event on many counts.  While we have yet to reach parity, it is encouraging that the 111th Congress includes 17 women in the Senate and 75 women in the House, a new record for that chamber.  Among the congresswomen are 12 African-Americans, seven Latinas, and two Asian-Americans.  There are now eight women governors and nine women lieutenant governors across the country.  State legislatures made significant gains as well, with New Hampshire becoming the first state where women make up a majority of the State Senate.

The women who won these seats stand on the shoulders of some pretty amazing and courageous forerunners.  Victoria Woodhull had the audacity to run for President in 1872 and in 1884 Belva Lockwood ran for that office under the banner of the Equal Rights Party.  In 1964 Margaret Chase Smith became the first woman to have her name placed in nomination for President by a major party.  Less than ten years later, Shirley Chisholm became the first African American woman to seek the presidency.  Pat Schroeder made a preliminary run in 1988 as did Elizabeth Dole in 2000. Carol Moseley Braun tried it in 2004 and of course, there was Hillary Clinton in 2008.  Three women have attempted the Vice Presidency, most notably Frances Farenthold in 1972 and Geraldine Ferraro in 1984.

Then there are the 15 notable women named to President Obama’s cabinet and other top positions.  Most well-known among them are Carol Browner, White House Coordinator of Energy and Climate Policy; Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor; Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security; Susan Rice, UN Ambassador; Hilda Solis, Secretary of Labor; and Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of State.

Will these women make a significant difference?  You bet, say those familiar with their work and priorities.  For example, Solis is a strong labor advocate and well-versed in occupational safety and health.  She is expected to be aggressive in promoting laws that protect workers such as flight attendants who suffer severe hearing loss because of jet noise and child care providers who often work in other people’s homes. Solis will push hard for pay equity, job training -- especially for returning vets -- and enforcement of minimum wage laws.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) has vowed to champion reproductive rights.  “We can now focus on improving and strengthening women’s lives by prioritizing prevention, improving access to contraceptives and restoring funding for international family planning,” she told WomensENews in January.   (The Obama administration has already reversed the Mexico City Gag Rule that prevented organizations receiving U.S. foreign assistance funds from performing abortions, making referrals, or providing contraception) and restored U.S. funding to the United Nations Population Fund.)

The Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, a bipartisan group, may not be able to tackle sticky issues like abortion head-on but it has put health at the top of its list of issues to be addressed this year.  Rep. Jan Schakowsky, Democrat of Illinois, the new co-chair with Republican Mary Fallin of Oklahoma, says the top priority for the Caucus is to expand funding and support for research and treatment in women’s health.  With outgoing co-chair Rep. Lois Capps (D-Ca.), Schakowsky plans to reintroduce a bill to address heart disease, the leading killer of women in the U.S.  The Caucus also plans to focus on trafficking, sexual and domestic violence, women in the military, and the backlog of DNA evidence in rape cases.

In February, Schakowsky, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and others unveiled an in-depth analysis and framework which, among other things, seeks to eliminate health disparities that affect women of color.  Their resolution asks Congress to pass legislation within 18 months that would guarantee health care for all individuals and is aimed particularly at coverage that would enable women to attain sustainable good health throughout their lifespan.

Women’s right to decent health care is a concern beyond our own borders for many women in Congress.   When President Obama revealed his new budget in February, a group of lawmakers gathered in the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to press Congress do more toward the prevention of maternal morbidity and mortality around the world, where every year nearly 540 million women die of preventable causes related to childbirth.  Among the lawmakers present were Reps. Lois Capps (a nurse) and Doris Matsui of California, Betty McCollum of Minnesota, and Jean Schmidt of Ohio. Schmidt, a Republican, has vowed to introduce legislation to address women’s mental health too.
These are still early days but the examples are compelling. And one thing seems certain:  The promise of women in policymaking positions is poised to reveal itself.  It makes me proud to have been part of the movement that led us to this milestone.  It would have made women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Eleanor Roosevelt and Bella Abzug more than proud.  I think they would have been ecstatic.
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Elayne Clift is a writer,lecturer, workshop leader and activist. She is senior correspondent for Women's Feature Service, columnist for the Keene (NH) Sentinel and Brattleboro (VT) Commons and a contributor to various publications internationally. (more...)
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