Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Terry O'Neill Headshot

Women Elected Virginia's Governor -- Now What?

Posted: Updated:

Without the votes of women, Virginia would have elected a Governor who opposes safe and legal abortion, wants to restrict access to affordable health care for women, supports extreme and dangerous fetal personhood measures and calls the birth control health care benefit a "sterilization mandate."

But Ken Cuccinelli, in a much closer than expected race, lost the election. An early analysis of a Washington Post exit poll showed that women favored Terry McAuliffe over Ken Cuccinelli by a margin of 51-42, a gender gap that was five points greater than the margin in 2009.

And among unmarried women, the split was 67 to 25, a difference of 42 percent! Finally, women comprised 51 percent of the electorate in Virginia.

Without the votes of women, Ohio, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania might have gone for Mitt Romney in 2012, providing a margin of victory to elect Romney President.

But Mitt Romney lost last year.

Without the votes of women, the only people ever to be elected President of the United States would be white, middle aged men.

But there's a person of color in the White House today, and I'm committed to electing a feminist woman president in 2016.

Going into the Virginia election, polls consistently showed that Terry McAuliffe had a substantial lead among women. An article in USA Today explained,

"Women voters are energized around issues of health, concerns about abortion and birth control," said Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University in Newport News and director of the Wason Center for Public Policy. "The gender gap is real."

Yes, the gender gap is real. But why do we only hear about it around Election Day? Women may provide the winning edge to candidates--male and female--but in the long run women will lose if our political power is put on hold in between elections.

The press has been talking about the "year of the woman" in U.S. politics at least since 1992, when the number of women in the U.S Senate went from two all the way to six (insert sarcasm here) with the election of Patty Murray, Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein, and Carol Moseley Braun.

Barbara Mikulski got it right when she said,

Calling 1992 the 'year of the woman' makes it sound like the 'year of the caribou' or 'year of the asparagus. We're not a fad, a fancy, or a year.

What we are is a force to be reckoned with. We know that the right wing's war on women, whose generals are bent on pushing back women's progress toward equality, is as real as the gender gap. We're fed up with it, and we're mobilizing.

According to the Center for American Women and Politics, in 2013, 98 women, or 18.3 percent, serve in the U.S. Congress. Twenty women serve in the Senate and 78 women--17.9 percent-- serve in the House. The number of women in statewide elective executive office posts is 75, while the proportion of women in state legislatures is 24.1 percent.

I'm the first to acknowledge that these statistics are better than they were some 20 years ago. But 20 percent or less isn't good enough when it comes to full participation, and there's only one way to get there. The good news is, more and more women are making a personal commitment to participate in politics at every level, and engage in the political system much more often than on Election Day.

That's easier said than done, of course. Especially when women face a concerted effort by Tea Party extremists and others to deny them the most basic right in a democracy--the right to vote.

Ever since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, conservatives have rushed to enact voter suppression measures aimed at communities of color, young people, immigrants and unmarried women -- that's right, the voters who elected and re-elected President Obama and other progressive candidates. Those measures are having a particular impact on women voters. For example, discriminatory voter ID laws are being used to turn women away from the polls, or discourage them from even showing up.

Look at what's happening in Texas According to PolicyMic,

The new Texas law requires all voters to provide a photo ID that reflects their current name. If they cannot, voters must provide any of a series of other acceptable forms of identification all of which must match exactly and match the name on their birth certificate.

Supporters of these new laws insist that requiring voters to have an ID that matches their birth certificate is a reasonable requirement. As Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has repeatedly said, "Almost every single person either has a valid photo ID ... or it is very easy to get one." What they don't say, however, is that the people who don't are largely married women who have taken their husband's name.

In fact, only 66% of women have an ID that reflects their current name. If any voter is using name different than what appears on their birth certificate, the voter is required to show proof of name change by providing an original or certified copy of their marriage license, divorce decree, or court ordered name change. Photocopies aren't accepted.

Now ask a woman who's been married for years where her original marriage certificate is. Ask a woman who's been divorced -- maybe more than once -- where all the divorce decrees are. Ask elderly women where their original birth certificate is.

Among the Texans who have had their identities challenged at the polls are District Court Judge Sandra Watts, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Jim Wright and State Senator Wendy Davis--yes, the same Wendy Davis whose filibuster of Texas' anti-abortion made national headlines!

Fighting voter suppression is essential to prevent discrimination at the ballot box, but there's more we can do to fundamentally change the nature of politics and all of society. Hillary Clinton has announced a new effort by the Clinton Foundation called No Ceilings: The Full Participation Project.

In a recent address to the Pennsylvania Conference for Women, Secretary Clinton said,

The great unfinished business of the 21st century is helping women and girls break through these ceilings and participate fully in every aspect of life once and for all. The full participation of women and girls is critical to global progress, development, and security.

The objective of this important project is to create a "21st century agenda to accelerate full participation for women and girls around the world. The project will convene the private sector, government, civil society, and individuals to accelerate progress toward this agenda."

Hillary Clinton is thinking big--about lasting change on a global scale--and so should we. Yes, women made a difference in this week's elections, but the real test is for women to become equal to men in participation in politics. So if you know a feminist woman who is running for office in your city, town, county or state, get on board her campaign.

Or better yet--run for office yourself!

Postscript: Here's an interesting graphic I found on Buzzfeed that dramatically illustrates the importance of women voters. It shows what the results of the 2012 election would have been without universal suffrage. (Guess how many states Barack Obama would have won if only white men could vote?)