On Election Day, I wonder when the hype over women and the elections will end; and the reality of the elections will become apparent. While a few women have dominated the airwaves, some in grizzly gear, others armed with charts and graphs -- most of us are wondering what we can do to exponentially change the number of women in office, in leadership and in the pipeline at all levels of government. In fact, we know this is not a good year for women as fewer of us will be serving when hands are raised and oaths are taken between November 3 and January.
While there will be fewer women serving in many legislatures and in Congress, I am particularly interested in how many Democratic women are serving, because they are the ones who will vote the way I want when they are in office. No matter how much my non-partisan sisters want to suggest otherwise, when we are voting on a woman's right to choose, or the ability to teach sex education in the schools, or insisting maternity coverage is a necessity and not a luxury item, and this list could go on... when there is a party position on a vote, Republican women cannot support those issues and live within their party. They couldn't before this election, and the tide is turning further right as Republicans elect even more conservative representatives.
Time and time again, I have had conversations with my friends across the aisle who would dearly love to vote with me on an issue that matters to them, but they simply cannot. Which women are elected matters, a lot. Women who are Democrats may not always vote your way either, but if it is an issue that the party can get behind, we need women in those seats supporting the issue and pushing for the vote. Democrats live under a very big tent, and when we need everyone to line up on big issues, we can usually pull it off in a way that aligns us by party, and not by gender. At least that is the way it is in 2010.
Why women? In legislative bodies without political gender parity (which is most legislative bodies in the U.S.) you are making decisions that affect women, and as women you may bring a perspective, advocate a view, or simply offer a common sense point to a debate on an issue that may affect women disproportionately should it pass. During my first days as a state legislator, I was about halfway through my pregnancy when I had the chance to vote on a bill asking employers to make accommodations for nursing mothers. This meant a place to nurse or a place to pump, which could be an office with a closed door, a storage area, really anyplace where you could have some privacy a few times a day. I sat in amazement as I watched several men vote no on that bill -- several who have young families and understood the impact of this issue on new mothers. While I was going to need a workplace accommodation in a matter of months, I could not imagine voting "no" on an issue that was so central to what many say the American Dream is all about - raising children and giving them opportunity. Do we really want women to choose whether they can keep nursing or return to work?
What happens with more women in charge? We can make significant changes in policies that matter to us. Today I read a heart-warming headline in the San Francisco Chronicle, "Free birth control is possible with new law." Now this is something that matters to many women. It is a perfect example of what women can do when they are in charge AND focused on issues that impact women. Sure enough, the sponsor of this legislation is Senator Barbara Mikulski.
For anyone trying NOT to have a baby this year when your job is uncertain or you don't have a job, you have a full house already, or you are in school or working in a challenging job - the idea that your birth control method is covered by insurance to keep you and your family healthy makes a lot of sense. For those whose religious beliefs do not support birth control - then don't buy it. But don't make it an expensive purchase for the millions of women who don't want to get pregnant right now. Babies are a lot more expensive from start to finish than birth control, and it would make so much sense to plan for families than to hope you don't get pregnant right now.
Of course, there are plenty of women who will never need birth control, have no plans for or interest in children, or can't have a baby. We need to elect women who understand that perspective as well, particularly since women running and serving in high office are being called out for not having a family, such as the story from the Nebraska governor's race last week. We need women bringing all those perspectives to our legislative bodies.
Women in office, especially in places where there are not too many women serving with them, are not always enthusiastic about legislation dealing with "women's issues" -- it can be uncomfortable, personal or challenging to lobby and vote on some of these issues. We need to give these women company and some political cover that can be had with larger numbers of women serving together bringing a range of solutions to the table.
When I wake up on November 3, the day after the election where we did a lot more talking about women than actually electing them, I will focus my efforts and resources making 2011, 2012 and 2013 years where we elect many more women in all levels of office. Emerge America will be leading this charge, focused on Democratic women who can train, run, win and serve. We are in nine states today and hoping to come to your state soon.
Which women matter. Today, go out and vote for the Democrats, particularly Democratic women, and let's see if we can prove the pundits wrong. On November 3, let's really come together to change the landscape of American politics -- run, win and serve.
Karen Middleton is the president of Emerge America and an outgoing Colorado state legislator.
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