The 2012 elections may seem like a long way off -- we still have what, 15 months before the general election, right? But women particularly have a lot of reasons to start mobilizing -- and soon.
In addition to persistent pay inequity, this last year saw Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security -- programs which help both genders, but which women are particularly reliant upon -- have been cut, with more cuts threatened. In 2011 alone, states have passed 162 pieces of legislation to restrict access to abortion and/or family planning, according to reproductive health advocacy nonprofit Guttmacher Institute, and more than 1,000 similar bills have been proposed. A host of other historic advances for women are now at risk. And for the first time in 30 years, the percentage of women in Congress has declined.
Fortunately, HERvotes, a coalition of women's organizations that represent millions of women, is working to get female voters engaged. The organization's goal is to preserve women's health and economic rights (aptly shortened to HER rights) by getting the ball rolling early for the 2012 election by enlisting women to get politically engaged and involved. In honor of Women's Equality Day last Friday, HERvote sponsored a blog carnival in which female bloggers discussed issues that are vital for women voters.
"Groups that have focused on one issue, be it domestic violence or health care, have started realizing that they are all connected," Joan Entmacher, vice president and Director of Family Economic Security at the National Women's Law Center, told The Huffington Post. "All of these programs are under threat, so we have to work together to restore fairness."
According to a press release, HERvotes aims to encourage women to vote for lawmakers who will:
- Stop the attacks on historic advances for women;
- Preserve successful policies, such as Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act;
- Respect women's contribution to the economy; and
- Act on jobs at livable wages and equal pay for our families' economic security.
"We are very serious about bringing out all the women we can," Dr. E. Faye Williams, Chair of the National Congress of Black Women, told HuffPost.
So what can women do to get involved and make a difference in time for the 2012 election?
According to Carla Reed of the Women's Information Network, the first step is getting informed.
"There are tons of resources to easily educate yourself, whether you are joining an organization, networking with other women or just googling information online," Reed said. "We need women to know who they will vote for and what their stance are on policies that will impact them."
The most important thing is to be proactive, Reed said. She suggested that women talk to employers to understand their health care plans or go on the White House's website to see how the Affordable Care Act -- which now mandates that insurance companies cannot charge a co-pay for birth control -- will impact them.
And staying informed doesn't have to be difficult. At the National Women's Law Center, for example, you can sign up to receive daily email updates and action alerts about important policies and issues that impact women.
There are many ways that women can spread information about policies that will impact their rights and their community.
"It can range from one click of the email to a phone call to a congressperson, to actually going outside and sharing your story to the media and leaders," said Kristen Rowe-Finkbeiner, the executive director and co-founder of Moms Rising.
With 80 percent of women having children by the time they are 44 and three quarters of those women in the workforce, Rowe-Finkbeiner said that it is important to give busy women who are juggling families and careers an easy way to stay politically engaged.
"From the 15 seconds it takes to forward an email to the 24 hours it takes to take a trip to Washington, D.C., to educate the White House about your situation, we are trying to give women easy ways to get involved," Rowe Finkeiner said.
"Women can become more engaged by doing something as simple as talking to their neighbors, friends and family about issues that are important to them and coming up with a plan to take action," civil rights leader Dolores Huerta said in a statement to HuffPost. "I also encourage women to attend local meetings for their school boards, city councils, county supervisors, and other places where decisions are made that impact their communities."
After you have the facts straight, it is important to utilize that knowledge.
"People are cynical about whether participating [by writing letters or calling representatives] will make a difference," Entmacher said. "But now Congress is saying they're hearing from Tea Party leaders saying to cut, cut, cut -- it's important to know that people are passionate on the other side."
Entmacher also expressed concern that "women are the majority of the electorate, but their participation fluctuates. It may be that nobody's perfect, but you have to decide what is better."
Conservative groups, such as Smart Girl Politics, are also mobilizing women to demand legislative change. They held the first ever women's presidential straw poll this July at their third annual summit in St. Louis.
Other women leaders suggested women go a step further and get involved with campaigns of local representatives to impact change in their own district.
RUN FOR OFFICE
Of course, one way for women to exact change is for them to take political office.
Today, women make up only 17 percent of Congress and 24 percent of state legislatures, and they hold only 6 governorships. But according to the 2012 Project, a non-partisan organization that aims to increase the number of women in Congress, next year's elections provides a unique opportunity to remedy the gender disparity.
"This is a once in a decade opportunity for women to gain seats," said Laurie Kretchmar, media director of the 2012 Project.
Given the fact that 18 states are being redistricted after the most recent census, and many state legislators will reach the end of their term limits next year, Kretchmar continued, there will be over 200 seats opening up in 2012 across the country.
1992 was the last time that a presidential election -- which brings optimal voter turnout -- ran concurrently with a redistricting year.
"It was also a record year for electing women into office who hadn't been in Congress before," Kretchmar said, referring to the 24 women who won seats that year (22 of the seats were open). "We are reaching out to women and opening their eyes to this opportunity."