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A Woman's Place Is In The House

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This morning I woke up and turned on CNN for a minute and it was Howie Kurtz interviewing Katie Couric. I was still in a daze-- having stayed up all night reading Mike Lux's book, The Progressive Revolution, but I could swear he asked her if she thought her new hairdo was helping her ratings. She told him to go ask Brian Williams if he thought his darker tan was good for his ratings. I didn't have my eyes open and maybe they were bantering or... maybe not.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the lot of women in our political system. When I look at the ten most progressive members of Congress, six of them-- Donna Edwards (D-MD), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Linda Sánchez (D-CA) and Hilda Solis (D-CA)-- are women. On the other hand, when you look at the worst reactionaries in Congress you wind up with Mary Fallin (R-OK) sitting in the top spot but followed closely by Michele Bachmann (R-MN), Mean Jean Schmidt (R-OH), Virginia Foxx (R-NC), Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA). There are 78 congresswomen, including 11 freshmen ranging from superb progressives like Marcia Fudge (D-OH) and Mary Jo Kilroy (D-OH) to an anti-choice conservative Democrat, Kathy Dahlkemper (PA) and raging reactionary Republicans Lynn Jenkins (KS) and Cynthia Lummis (WY). But to many people what stands out here is that there are 435 members of Congress and that 78 means that slightly over half the population holds around 18% of the seats-- and that's 1% more than the percentage of women in the Senate.

What brought it up for me was an argument I had with some friends about identity politics. Emily's List, for example, supports women over men -- even as was the case last year in Memphis, when a super-progressive champion of women's rights and working families, Rep. Steve Cohen, was challenged by a bigoted corporate shill, Nikki Tinker. There needs to be more women in Congress, but not terrible ones in the place of excellent male incumbents with proven track records. Emily's List should help recruit good challengers not support embarrassing ones. (In fact, they were so embarrassed that they tacitly pulled out of the race on election day when their candidate launched an orgy of anti-Semitic, racist and homophobic ads.)

Last year one women who Emily's List did support-- although not financially-- was Sam Bennett, a progressive stalwart who took on fake moderate Charlie Dent in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley (PA-15). Blue America raised $10,562 for Sam from 331 donors and also sent her a $2,000 check from the Blue America PAC. During the campaign, I couldn't help but notice a shocking amount of sexist invective aimed at her. Last week, after a catching-up blog session, we were talking about it on the phone and she offered to send me a short post she wrote about her thoughts on the subject.

LILLY'S LEGACY

by Sam Bennett


I was once a single mother. My mother too. Nationally women earn only 77 cents to every dollar a man earns-- a problem for America's children. Recent passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act seeks "to provide more effective remedies to victims of discrimination in the payment of wages on the basis of sex." I'm deeply grateful this bill was passed and deeply disappointed that my Congressman, Charlie Dent, voted against it. As a recent candidate for U.S. Congress who happened to be a woman, the issue of gender proved to be profound in my race.

I was driving west on Route PA-78 passing McCain Palin signs mounted like shrines on barns with thirty foot American flags waving beside. Driving to Catherine "CBK" Baker Knoll's viewing, recently deceased first female Treasurer and Lt. Governor of my state. My state with one of the lowest rates of women in elected office in the whole US of A. In Pennsylvania we have nineteen Congressional seats and until the past election only one woman represented us. We now have two: Kathy Dahlkemper won out Erie way where churches grow small crosses across lawns with signs explaining "each cross represents one/one hundred/one thousand babies that have been aborted each day/week/year." Somehow the U.S. manages to have the lowest rate of women in elected office among all industrialized democracies. I was the only other woman who ran for U.S. Congress in PA this year. I lost but garnered more votes than any congressional Democratic candidate in my district prior.

CBK special guested a fundraiser for me, arriving with disposable camera and hostess gift. One week later I received a handwritten note with strict instructions to immediately deliver the accompanying photos of her with every guest. Clearly her political success based on decades of exceptionally well organized personal touch.

Hillary under the frescoed dome of our capitol rotunda honored CBK. She who made "18 million cracks" in the glass ceiling won Pennsylvania. We delivered again for Obama despite being home to the one of the highest concentrations of white supremacy groups in the country. Is the national glass ceiling of gender thicker, more resistant than the one of race?

Deborah Tannen stressed that in countries from Pakistan to the United Kingdom, even if you are a woman, the fact that you've ascended the political ladder automatically provides the inherent deference accorded to those of higher social standing-- structures just not in place in our Horatio Alger society. A donor sent a Bill Moyer interview to me on the disturbing media "avalanche of misogyny directed at Hillary Clinton" and warned that I should prepare for the upcoming assault in my run for Congress. I was somewhat ready.

Running for mayor of Allentown, the third largest city in Pennsylvania, I lost by 46 votes against a 20 year political incumbent. At our first political debate the audience of only white-men-older-than-my-father riced me with "so are you a stewardess sweetie?" as I walked up the aisle. After my opponent had his ten unimpeded minutes I started my remarks, and midway was interrupted by the Democratic Club president. "Sam, I have a question for you... I was laying in bed last night thinking about you and all of us here are wondering... just what are your measurements?" I should have said I'd be happy to give him mine if he would first supply his. As it was, I smiled, ignored his question, clearly intended to intimidate. But the real shocker: the newspaper reporter who covered the event failing to make any mention of the comment. In thirty years as a businesswoman I've been invited to participate in wet T-shirt contests, been fondled under conference tables and thought politics and its press would be better behaved. I was wrong.

Post announcing my bid for U.S. Congress this same newspaper day after day ran with this verbatim quote from a local blog on its front page: "Sammy Bennett is a phony political w**** who gives good h*** and makes cheap, blatant political opportunists look like Mother Fucking Teresa. Even her c*** is made of plastic." Though over the next year the paper never cited the differences between my opponent and I on issues, they ensured the launch of my bid for U.S. Congress linked me to "c***," "w****" and "h***." Next this paper promptly dove into a multiple week query about my salary as the newly minted statewide director of a non-profit. Professional women still look me in the eye "Sam, if you were a man, no one would have said a word about your salary."

Women candidates for U.S. Congress: Vic Wuslin of OH; Betsy Markey of CO; Judy Baker of MO; Suzanne Kosmas of FL; and I stood on stage at the Yale Club in Manhattan, Gloria Steinem presiding. The event organized by the legendary Sarah Kovner and Ann Hess of NYC. Passionate, stern, demanding, without these women and many like them, my race would have been still born. The legions of women who fiercely support other women essential to any progress made.

Women must run. And we do not fail when we lose. The fact that we ran is a win. Mina, CBK's daughter, confides "Sam, you know what my mother would have said... you need to run again." And to Lilly, who fought her part of the war for all of us, we say thank you. Bottom line, we need more women running or we'll never have more women elected. And our nation will be the poorer for it.