THE BLOG
08/24/2012 04:16 pm ET | Updated Oct 24, 2012

Women's Equality Day: Not Just About Voting Anymore

Sunday we mark Women's Equality Day, a celebration of the 19th Amendment, the victory that gave women a voice in politics and policy.

Lately, however, women have reason to question whether they are being heard. What we are hearing is men spouting off misinformation about issues that affect women's pay, health, and families -- distortions that are difficult to correct when so few women hold leadership positions.

That's about to change. Thanks to a culture that is spurring rhetoric and equally outrageous legislation that try to silence women, we are again fighting for our voice. A historic number of women are running for Congress this year, and if elected, they will make a huge dent in our lack of political representation. No more will women have to put up with inflammatory statements like Rep. Todd Akin's: "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."

His remark was just the latest shocking comment about women. Earlier this summer, Brian Kilmeade, co-host of the morning show Fox & Friends, said, "Women are everywhere. We're letting them play golf and tennis now. It's out of control."

And finally, Michigan state Rep. Wayne Schmidt likened the censure of his female colleague to "giving the kid a time out for a day." Schmidt was referring to his fellow representative Lisa Brown, who was rebuked for using the word "vagina" during a floor debate on an abortion bill.

These quotes act as mute buttons, a way to control who is heard and respected in policy discussions. But we didn't fight so hard for a voice to give it away so readily. Tired of nonsensical politics over their health care, their paychecks, and, yes, their birth control, women are taking their representation into their own hands.

A record-breaking 154 women have received party nominations for U.S. House races this year, thanks in part to the efforts of numerous training programs across the country and the 2012 Project, a campaign that encouraged and supported women to run this cycle. (Its slogan: "Don't get mad. Get elected.")

There's also good news on the Senate side, where women could hold as many as 25 seats after this election, and the 18 women running have raised more than $135 million -- a sign that donors also believe in women candidates.

We are also seeing more women under 40 running (supported by such groups as WUFPAC) who, if elected, can build seniority, master the issues, and become powerful congressional leaders.

Such positive possibilities could not come at a better time. Over the last two decades, the number of national women lawmakers has increased, on average, by just two per year. At this rate, women won't have equal representation in Congress until 2098.

The last time women made such a collective run for office -- 1992 -- the country had just watched a panel of congressmen humiliate Anita Hill on national television. On the sidelines, a line of women waited to testify on Hill's behalf, to tell the nation of her credibility and courage. They were never called. The next election, 29 women joined Congress.

This past February, Americans watched a similar scene. An all-male panel once again told a woman her voice didn't matter, so Sandra Fluke sat in silence while five men discussed birth control.

Once again, Americans were not pleased. Baby boomers, who are rightly proud of their generation's work to advance women, were horrified at the threat of turning back the clock. Younger women, who weren't around for the first fight for reproductive rights, couldn't believe that the topic was up for debate. But what angered people most -- regardless of generation, gender, or party line -- was the unsettling scene of women excluded.

The large number of women running is a true signal that our leaders have failed to properly hear and amplify women's perspectives. We won't secure full parity in congressional representation this year, but the large number of women candidates will sound a call no one can silence: The face of politics must change.

On this Women's Equality Day, we should certainly celebrate the power of a woman's vote. But let's also celebrate a woman's voice and the fact that we can make ourselves heard every day -- not just every four years -- by supporting a sea change of leadership.