This has not been a good week for Democratic women.
First, a New York Times op-ed penned by two progressive feminists noting two disturbing trends: 1) Democratic Leaders have been bargaining away our reproductive rights, and 2) the Democratic Party is not seeking out nor encouraging strong women leaders . Then, a Los Angeles Times story descrying that hopes for the "Year of the Women" are fading. Given the projected seat losses by incumbent Democratic women, women's representation in government will likely decrease in 2010 (for the first time since 1976).
Well, gosh golly gee. Let me gather up some faux shock and righteous indignation and say: "You mean the Democratic Party doesn't care about women?". There, that's better.
Why are Democratic women moving backwards? Because we've promised our vote to one party on the basis of one issue. We have no bargaining power or leverage. The old idiom: Why buy the cow, when you can get the milk for free?, has a DNC version: If we pay lip service to the eggs, we'll get their vote for free!
To get women back on the path of advancement, we need a new strategy. It's time for women leaders to voyage beyond women's studies and take a lesson from the economics department. When business as usual stops working, it's time to restructure and reinvent.
The imperious assumption that reproductive rights is the litmus test for our vote is holding us back. United, women are a powerful voting block. Divided, we are essentially stalled. To move forward, women need to find common ground. Here's some tips on getting there:
1. Reproductive Rights should not be our centerpiece issue
I am pro-choice and reproductive rights are important to me. But so are other issues. A singular focus on reproductive rights is defeatist, myopic and exclusionary. How about post menopausal women? Or lesbian women? Or women who are not sexually active? Should one issue that impacts a slice of women and girls be our holy grail?
If we truly want to give women control of their bodies, women need economic freedom. Women compose the majority of small business owners and employees. We raise the vast majority of children. In a year where uncertainty on taxes, health care costs and regulations has paused economic expansion, it is women who lose. Women who are not financially secure are more likely to stay in abusive relationships (with their children), get foreclosed on, lose credit and so on.
We need to reformulate and update our list of what constitutes: "women's issue."
2. Republican Women are not the enemy
So sure that Republican women don't care about women's issues? Think again!
Without the support of the four female Republican Senators, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act would not have passed. The Republican women were also instrumental in passing Al Franken's Anti-Rape Amendment, working with Democratic women to co-sponsor Mammogram Coverage Amendment, and speaking out for the women of Afghanistan.
Our daily lives are improved by having women leaders from both parties. My colleague Patricia Garrison, a registered Democrat, recalls having a difficult delivery of her daughter fifteen years ago. Nonetheless, her insurance company instructed her check out the next day. Then a light bulb went off. Pat remembered that her governor, Christine Todd Whitman (R), had just signed a bill mandating insurers to cover a second night in the hospital. Pat readily acknowledges that if "Christine" was instead "Christopher", from either party, Pat would have been shipped home 24 hours later.
3. Women's Groups' anti-women rhetoric sets us back
Women's groups should declare a moratorium on attacking Republican women. As Anne Kornblut's Notes from the Cracked Ceiling sadly documents, there is a large segment of women (and men) who will simply not vote for women because they presume we are not qualified. Feeding into this ignorance by demeaning women candidates only steepens the slope for all women candidates.
The video "Sarah Palin Doesn't Speak for Me" is unbecoming and a stain on the legacy of the important organization that produced it. So are the insidious op-ed's written by leaders of women's organizations attacking Republican women running for office. If you run an organization whose goal is to get more women elected, then get women elected. Send us a video of Democratic women candidates who DO speak for you and tell us how we can support them. Meet with the DNC and demand more support and funding for women running.
But don't shame our gender by telling us the best you can do is to demean other women - it's not only high school, it's junior high school. Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina are serious women who ran Fortune 500 companies (only 3% of F500 CEOs are women). Nikki Haley and Susana Martinez are minority women who made their own way to run as governors. These women are not "wingnuts" or any of the other verbal diarrhea being hurled their way. Even if we don't vote for these women, we can acknowledge and respect them. If your organization REALLY needs to make it a fight on policy, then make a video attacking some of the Republican men running against Democratic women.
4. "A Palin of Our Own" is not the solution
It would be misguided to presume that the solution for the Democratic Party is to find our Sarah Palin. The internalized sexism in our party is too systemic . For example, the two progressive feminists who penned the 'Palin of Our Own' op-ed were unequivocally brutal towards Hillary Clinton, a woman in our party, publishing sexist articles like this. Why didn't the women in our party speak out?
We can, however, learn from Sarah Palin. Palin unapologetically supports women in her party. Even at times incurring her party faithful's wrath when her choices were not conservative enough.
We should, as a starting point, expect that of our women leaders. And, perhaps of ourselves. Can we support the women in our party and give them the benefit of the doubt until we make some inroads towards gender balance? Because there is no "perfect" woman candidate. If Mother Teresa were running as a Democrat, we'd obsess over what her hair looked like under the habit.
We don't necessarily need to vote for women of the Republican Party if we disagree with their policies. But as my dearly deceased mother used to say: If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all.
Supporting women. Finding common ground. These notions will get women moving forward once again!
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