THE BLOG
10/17/2012 05:39 pm ET Updated Dec 17, 2012

A Banner Year for Women? Winning Is About More Than Numbers

The "year of the woman" has gone through as many iterations as Mitt Romney's stance on abortion. The original year of the woman, 1992, earned the moniker when 24 new women and 23 incumbent women won seats in the U.S. House. We heard the phrase parroted this year, when a record number of women filed nomination papers to run for Congress. Then the term shifted to encompass the so-called women's issues currently used as political chips: women's healthcare, access to it, who should pay for it, and how.

While this spotlight on women and their political power is a welcome one, narrowly defining the "year of the woman" as one in which birth control dominates policy discussions and women run for office is a misnomer. As opinion writer Kathleen Parker pointed out in a recent Washington Post column, limiting women's priorities to issues such as abortion, birth control and rape diminishes the value of women's voices in all political conversations.

I agree that women care about more than issues uniquely affecting them (and that the "year of the woman" might be more accurately named the "year of the American"). I propose 2012 should be the year of the woman for more important reasons: Women winning office this election cycle won't only be good for women. It will be good for everyone.

The politicization of women's bodies isn't new; we've been fighting this battle for more than a century. However, the fervor with which these issues of equality and autonomy have been thrust back into the political dialogue gives new meaning to battle of the sexes.

The social agenda is the one making headlines, but a study by Quinnipiac University shows that women give serious weight to the economy, jobs and foreign policy, too. Women understand that the social agenda and the economic one are not mutually exclusive. Reproductive issues are, in fact, economic ones. A true "year of the woman" would reflect that.

Want to know what a real "year of the woman" would look like? It would go something like this: Congress passes pay equity legislation, ensuring women get paid their fair share for doing the same work as men and have the tools necessary to combat disparity when it does occur. Paid sick leave policies are mandated across the country, ensuring workers no longer have to choose between their jobs and their health. Paid maternity leave policies are the law of the land, meaning mothers don't have to choose between caring for their babies and keeping their jobs.

A woman earning a fair wage in the workplace is good for women; it is even better for the partners and children who depend on that woman's paycheck. Paid sick leave policies are good for the women workers who will be able to take gentle care of themselves when they're sick; it is even better for the employers who will benefit from a healthy, productive workforce.

Legislation related to collective bargaining disproportionately affects women, too. Women comprise almost half of all union members and will exceed that number in the next decade, according to a study by the Center for Economic Policy Research. With nearly 20 percent of children living with single mothers, the rights of women workers directly affect families. As education and employment go hand-in-hand, access to Pell Grants -- the federal government's largest direct grant program for low-income students -- is important to women. Women make up more than half of Pell Grant recipients.

Of course, there are some men in elected office who support these issues. They have mothers, wives, daughters and sisters who help inform their views on the economic value of affordable birth control, workplace equality and paid sick leave. They have the compassion and empathy to think beyond their own interests. But who better to effectively advocate for women than women themselves?

Beyond advocating for themselves, women bring a unique perspective to office. Without Congresswoman Niki Tsongas's presence on the Armed Services Committee, would we be talking about sexual assault in the military? Without Senator Kirsten Gillibrand introducing the Safe Baby Products Act, would we be talking about toxic chemicals in baby shampoo and bubble bath? Unlikely.

For as long as men have dominated Congress, these questions weren't pressing ones.

Furthermore, women may be more effective representatives for all of their constituents. A 2009 University of Chicago and Stanford University study showed that on average, women in Congress were more effective than their male counterparts. They introduced more legislation, delivered more federal dollars to their districts, and recruited more co-sponsors for bills.

Women make up just 17 percent of Congress. Imagine the results women could deliver if we increased their ranks.

By moving the dial from 17 percent to a number that reflects women's 50-plus percent hold on the electorate, we'll have more voices fighting for the things that are important not just to women, but to everyone. More women in office is good for women, good for families and good for the economy.

When you go to the polls on November 6, don't vote for a woman simply because she is a woman. Vote for a woman because she shares your values. Vote for a woman because she'll get results. Now that will be a banner year.

"Like" Barbara Lee on Facebook.com/BarbaraLeeSays

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