In 1972, I was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. It was a thrill to be a representative of the American electorate -- especially that year, when women were making huge strides toward equality and the electricity of change was in the air. This was our year, the Year of the Woman. Before the election, we had exactly 11 women in Congress -- one in the Senate and 10 in the House of Representatives. When the smoke cleared from the election, we had picked up a total of (wait for it...) four seats. Not exactly a triumph.
The good news is, this year there are 181 women running for Congress -- and while not all of the candidates would win my vote, they sure do win my admiration...for running.
We need more women in the Capitol. From left to right, liberal to conservative, women have simply got to get a larger toehold in federal government. That's the best -- the only -- way to achieve real balance in Washington.
This year's candidates might not know it, but they all owe a debt of gratitude to Jeannette Rankin, who was the first woman elected to Congress -- in 1916, just two years after her home state of Montana granted women the right to vote. (See? Let women vote and they elect women!) Even as the U.S. debated our entry into World War I, Representative Rankin made women's suffrage her first priority, asking her colleagues to explain how "the same Congress that voted to make the world safe for democracy refuses to give this small measure of democracy to the women of our country?" Rankin's measure failed to pass that year, but just four years later the 19th Amendment gave all American women the right to vote.
That sent a wave of women to Washington, but it was no tsunami. For most of the 20th century, the U.S. Senate had only one or two women at a time (out of 100 senators). It wasn't until 1991 that women senators numbered more than two (when we got up to a whopping four). We did a bit better in the House of Representatives, but it was 1997 (just 15 years ago!) before women totaled more than 50 there -- and that's out of 435 members.
Think we're doing swimmingly now? Not quite. Women hold exactly 90 of the 535 seats in the current Congress -- 17 Senators and 73 Representatives. That's less than 17 percent of our federal legislators, when we are 51 percent of the population.
That's simply unthinkable -- and inexcusable. Where will our first woman president come from if not from among the legislators on the national stage? Where will we find our Margaret Thatcher or Angela Merkel? Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister of India in 1966 and Golda Meir took the helm in Israel in 1969 -- and we didn't even have a serious vice presidential candidate until Geraldine Ferraro in 1984. In 2008, Hillary Clinton became the first real contender for our presidency, but she didn't get nominated, while Ireland has had two women presidents in a row!
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This year's crop of female candidates run the gamut from old-timers Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-California) and Senator Patty Murray (D-Washington) to first-timers like Grace Meng, a liberal New York Democrat who supports women's access to healthcare and higher taxes for upper-income earners; and LeAnne Kolb, a conservative Florida Republican whose campaign promises include repealing the Affordable Care Act and cutting taxes.
They also bring an amazing diversity of experience with them. Linda McMahon, a Republican candidate for Senate from Connecticut and the CEO of WWE, wrestled a tiny niche company into an enterprise with 600 employees. Cheri Bustos, running for the House as a Democrat from Illinois, had a long career as an investigative reporter until she developed a passion for health care reform. And the formidable Elizabeth Warren, Democratic candidate for Senate from Massachusetts, is a former Harvard law professor who championed the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau after the 2008 banking crisis.
Many of these women, if elected, would be firsts -- and you know how I do love firsts. Grace Meng would be the first Asian member of Congress from New York; Mia Love, a Tea Party candidate from Utah, would be the first African-American Mormon in the House; Democrat Tulsi Gabbard from Hawaii, would be the first Hindu Representative; and Tammy Duckworth, while not the first female military vet in Congress, would be the first woman elected who lost both legs when the Black Hawk helicopter she was co-piloting was hit in Iraq.
If you have any doubt that women in Congress change the course of history -- especially for women's issues -- let me tell you about my good friend and fellow warrior Bella Abzug, who was once denied an American Express card unless her husband signed the application. It's not as if Bella didn't have a decent job of her own -- she was a member of Congress at the time -- but she was a woman, and her credit line depended on the whim of banks and the permission of her husband.
You've got to love Bella: she not only went on to spearhead the Equal Credit Opportunity Act to prohibit banks and credit card companies from denying women credit, but she made a great parody of American Express's "Do You Know Me?" commercials to tweak the credit giant's corporate nose about it -- while holding up her own hard-won card.
To paraphrase a different commercial, you've got to be in it to win it. I so admire these 181 women who are putting themselves out there -- sacrificing career, personal, and family time to bring more women to Washington.
So to all the candidates this year, congratulations for throwing your hats in the ring -- and may the best women win!
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