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Feminists' Job One: Electing More Women to Office

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Women make up almost 51 percent of the U.S. population.

Women make up almost 17 percent of the U.S. Congress.

Although 1992 may have been the "Year of the Woman" in congressional contests, that election changed the proportion of women from 6 percent to only 10 percent.


Let's set aside, for the moment, the discussion of who's a feminist (Sarah Palin?) and whether your position on abortion is a factor.

Let's talk about electing more women to office.

"We had a year, and that passed quickly, and that was a long time ago," said Marie C. Wilson, president and founder of The White House Project, a nonprofit group that trains women and encourages them to run for office. "We don't need a Year of the Woman -- we need a concentrated way that we get enough women into leadership positions in this country so that it's normal."

Marie C. WilsonIn 1916, Montana's Jeannette Rankin -- a Republican -- became the first woman elected to Congress. As the only woman, she was among those who voted to ratify the constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote. But Rankin's vote against World War I cost her the U.S. Senate race in 1918. She was re-elected to the House in 1940 and voted against Franklin Roosevelt's declaration of war, becoming the only member of Congress to oppose both world wars.

In those early years, Republican women in Congress often outnumbered their Democratic counterparts.

In fact, ideological differences weren't quite as marked. Both parties endorsed an Equal Rights Amendment in the early 1940s. As Gail Collins points out in her great book, "When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present," the early supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment were viewed as well-off conservatives and pooh-poohed out of the halls of Washington, D.C.

But liberal women led the charge during the revolutionary years in the 1960s and '70s. Despite the prohibition of sex discrimination in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, women's presence in Congress remained below 4 percent until 1981, inching up to only 6 percent by 1991.

And it wasn't until the early '90s that Democratic women began consistently and significantly outnumbering their GOP counterparts.

"I come from an era where there were really socially progressive Republican women," Wilson said. "I think there are many women in that party who are looking for a way to be socially progressive and win, and be fiscally conservative."

This year, 23 women -- 10 Democrats and 13 Republicans -- are running for the U.S. Senate, while 198 women -- 117 Democrats and 81 Republicans -- are running for the House, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

You can look at the June 8 wins by Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman in California, Nikki Haley almost escaping a runoff in South Carolina, Roxanne Conlin in Iowa and others, and declare this the Year of the Woman redux. But 1992 still holds the record for 29 women filing to run for Senate and 222 filing to run for the House. Many saw the large numbers of women running that year as a reaction to the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas in 1991, in which Anita Hill accused Thomas of sexual harassment.

Most of the women running in 2010 would have to win to achieve Wilson's goal: a Congress that's 51 percent female.

"You need to have parity or at least a third" to effect real change, she said.

Some 10,000 women have been through The White House Project's training sessions around the nation, in which they learn how to organize campaigns, debate issues and build coalitions.

"We make women visible," Wilson said. "We work with women in corporate America to make sure women can advance up those ladders, too."

Some women go on from the training to seek local offices, such as school board or city council. Others run for state legislatures or Congress.

While the organization describes itself as "progressive" on its Web site, it doesn't ask program applicants about their views on issues. "We train women regardless of their stance" on abortion rights, said project spokeswoman Kristina Goodman. "But most of the women who train with us, Republicans and Democrats, are pro-choice." That may be because the training sessions are offered in urban areas, where populations tend to be more pro-choice than in rural areas, Goodman said.

About 7 percent of the 10,000 women who've gone through training have run for office, Goodman said, but regional coordinators don't believe any included opposition to abortion in their platforms.

Wilson said she wanted to see female candidates who support laws that benefit women -- laws improving child care, health care, education. "I don't want abortion to be the only litmus test, for God's sake," she said.

Back to Sarah Palin, who ignited this debate with her frequent use of the "f-word" last month. I'll give her this: In 2008, she got my South Carolina nieces and plenty of other women interested in politics. I hold out hope that once people are interested, they also take the steps to become informed and even involved. Certainly, Palin motivated many of my Colorado girlfriends to get involved, not only in protesting her appearances but in getting out the vote. A couple of them are now involved in city government.

"The more women who are out there and the more women who are seen as running, the more women who have children and are running, the more women in the South who are running," Wilson said, "it does encourage more women."

Last week, I asked Cecile Richards, former deputy chief of staff for Speaker Nancy Polosi, founder of America Votes, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planned Parenthood Action Fund, about this year of women -- and what her mother, the late former Gov. Ann Richards of Texas, would think.

"I don't know what mom would think," she said. "But my guess is kind of my reaction, which is I'm just glad there are more women running . . . It will benefit more women overall. Women are better on women's issues by and large."
Filed Under: Woman Up, Congress

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Women outnumber men in college, and outnumber men in attaining college degrees. It is very apparent that eventually women will outnumber men in politics as well. I believe this is a result of the "war on boys" that is going on in most public schools. Boys who resist or get bored with the feminized environment (as in no contact sports during recess, non competitive activities, no score keeping, everyone's a winner, forced boy/girl activities) get penalized and learn to hate school.

June 19 2010 at 5:20 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to gomezcorp's comment

A statement that proves you're part of the illusionary 'war on boys' school tactic! Go back to school and learn a few things before you comment. There is no 'war on boys.' If anything, there has been a war on girls forever. Girls can't do this, can't learn that, isn't in their nature, isn't feminine enough, while boys could do anything, even the 'girly' things. It has always been this way and now society is starting to realize that women matter. Wake up, the world will not revert to your chauvinistic standards. Move with us or be left behind.

June 20 2010 at 7:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This is or is not sexism depending on the viewpoint.

June 19 2010 at 4:19 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

I do not agree with this philosophy (that job one is to elect other women into political office). Just because a candidate is a women doesn't mean she's the best person for the job. I feel that job one for me and all other voters in the US is to vote for the person we feel is the best person for the job, regardless of the candidate's gender or political party affiliation. Voting for a woman candidate based on her gender is the female version of the "good ole boy network" and is not what's best for anyone or for the country.

June 19 2010 at 12:18 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to jmbkanga2's comment

I would never advocate voting for a candidate just because she's a woman - and there are many women candidates I wouldn't vote for, just as there are male candidates I wouldn't vote for. I do believe we need more women running for office, from all ranges of the ideological spectrum. As @Gomezcorp points out, women outnumber men in college and in getting college degrees. But we're far, far behind in actively helping run our democracy in terms of leadership positions.

June 20 2010 at 11:57 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

I agree, the men have made a mess of things in this country and it's time for women to get into office and see what they can do.
I also feel that women are more respectful and honest.
There are many strong smart women on the political horizon.

June 19 2010 at 12:09 PM Report abuse -7 rate up rate down Reply

To elect a person simply because they are a woman is like electing someone simply because they are white or black with no regard for valid qualifications.

June 19 2010 at 11:21 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to punnster's comment

Same goes for the business world. WHO HAS THE BEST QUALIFICATIONS FOR THE JOB? Can we get away from color and gender, and start basing decisions on character, qualifications, achievments, honesty, integrity, experience?

June 23 2010 at 12:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Palin is the only powerhouse in american politics and is building a base of conservative women who will make her president. Take a look at the political landscape after the November elections and she will be the person in charge. Obama will then spend the next couple of years as a disinterested lame duck golfer.

June 19 2010 at 10:01 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

I think what is happening is great, I know more liberal women than conservatives. But there has been an attempt to paint a picture of you can't be a feminist and be a conservative. My conservative female friends have long felt disenfranchised by the media and their sisters on the left

June 16 2010 at 9:02 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

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