10/25/2013 02:34 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Only Woman

Know what it's like to be the only woman in the meeting room, courtroom or boardroom?

I do. Countless political panels as the only woman around 4 or 5 guys. Settlement conferences in chambers as the only female attorney present and -- with the exception of the court reporter or judge's clerk -- the only woman in the room. Executive meetings on a nonprofit board as the only female subcommittee member.

When did I notice? Not right away. When I was younger, it was a thrill to be at the "big kids" table. At age 22, I served as the Executive Director of the California Democratic Party, so I was not only the only woman at the table, but also by far the youngest. My age was noted more than my gender.

Five years later I graduated from law school and passed the California Bar Exam. After sending a note to my grandmother, she wrote back "how happy I am to see you accomplish what I could not 55 years ago." I had forgotten that she had matriculated at law school but had to drop out when her young children were sick. Though she went on to serve as First Lady of Baltimore, my grandmother never forgot her dream, and I only realized then that I was carrying hers. At that moment I became conscious of being "the only one" and could viscerally feel myself climbing a double stair as a professional and as a "lady lawyer," "girl attorney" or "woman leader" as I was often called. To my face. (Mostly) as a compliment.

Now as I travel the country sharing my call to service of advancing Democrats and democracy, every single engagement concludes with someone telling me, "I'm also the first woman in my family to graduate law school" or "I'm the only openly gay person on my board" or "I'm the only young person on my leadership team" or "Tell me about it, I'm the only woman and only person of color so they think they've got a twofer" or "They say tech is a meritocracy but 'brogrammers' and techno libertarians are as sexist as Mad Men."

We who have been "the only one" know what it's like to know what it's like to engage with from people who did not grow up in a just society and are adapting to women, people of color and LBGT Americans in positions of leadership. To be asked "Is your boss here yet?" or "Can you grab us some coffee while you're up?" or "My wife would love your dress." We know what it's like when people shake your white male assistant's hand assuming he is your supervisor. We know what it's like to suggest an idea only to hear it echoed by a man -- and then hear the group praise the man for "his" idea and are pleasantly surprised when given credit for our own ideas in real time. We know what it's like to be "Lilly Ledbetter-ed," facing Mad Men mores and earning Mad Men paychecks. (I just saw Ms. Ledbetter at Nancy Pelosi's National Women's Hall of Fame induction ceremony and said to her, "Imagine what Goodyear must be thinking -- if only they had simply paid you what you were worth -- instead you've helped millions of women and they've lost millions in business!")

We live what the sociologists say, that on a leadership team one woman is crushed, two are placed in direct competition, but three begin a critical mass and can start forming coalitions, and have seen things get a little better -- more women, more people of color, more LGBT Americans in positions of leadership and power than ever before. The United States House of Representatives Democratic Caucus is a majority of women, people of color, and LGBT Americans. That is amazing -- and has helped usher in a new progressive emphasis on women's rights, intersectional feminism on wages, immigration, employment non-discrimination, and politics.

I've often wondered how to build on this success so that my daughter is not "the only woman" in the meeting rooms, courtrooms or boardrooms of her future.

Simply put: to overcome sexism, address income inequality.

According to the just-released Global Gender Gap Report 2013, which benchmarks national gender gaps of 136 countries on economic, political, education- and health-based criteria, the United States ranks an embarrassing 23rd out of 136 countries in the status of women. The United States is embarrassingly low in wage equality and in numbers of women in the legislative branch.

Americans know that income inequality manifests in gender and racial disparity. For example, our wage numbers are far lower for women of color -- "white women make only 77 cents for every dollar earned by men, amounting to a yearly gap of $11,084 between full-time men and women," but "for African-American women and Latinas the pay gap is even larger. African-American women on average earn only 64 cents and Latinas on average earn only 55 cents for every dollar earned by white, non-Hispanic men."

Women, people of color, and LBGT Americans facing wage gaps and employment discrimination will simply never make as much as our straight white male counterparts without change, so our first step must be to pass a woman's economic agenda to address income inequality in America. The Democrats' When Women Succeed, America Succeeds economic agenda does exactly that though fair pay, raising the minimum wage, paid sick days and family leave, and quality preschool and childcare so that all women are empowered to raise happy, healthy families and to reach their fullest human and economic potential. And of course ENDA's (Employment Non-Discrimination Act) passage would ensure that people cannot be fired simply for being gay.

Second, we must close these wage gaps by passing just, comprehensive immigration reform. As President Obama has often said, the bipartisan legislation securing borders, keeping families together, protecting workers, and offering a path to citizenship will go a long way toward stabilizing the economic life of families, industries and communities.

Third, healthcare disparities are also critical. Fighting to implement the patient protections in the Affordable Care Act, to ensure that being a woman will no longer be treated as a pre-existing medical condition, that caps are lifted, wellness visits encouraged, and more families covered at lower costs; promoting reproductive justice, and continuing to strengthen and protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid will improve women's health. Working to protect our safety net is a critical component of advancing equality.

Passing a values-based national budget enshrining our commitment to economic opportunity and the American safety net will go a long way to improving women's economic, education, and health performance metrics.

Fourth, political disparities begin in the voting booth. All other rights flow from voting rights so we must ensure that more women are registered, voting, volunteering, and serving in public life. We also need fresh recruits and reinforcements for feminist candidates to close the gap in political representation. Today's DNC Democratic Women's Alliance launch is a positive step forward on the path to equality -- and frankly the GOP ought to create one too.

Fifth, political power is also manifest at the corporate board level -- the same corporation making personnel decisions is also making political decisions through its political influence. Companies that don't promote women internally are not likely to support women leaders in office or women's policy objectives externally either. From a candidate recruiting perspective, more women in the C suites mean more women in the Congress.

Women's economic power, healthcare, and voting rights and power are all important steps to liberty and justice for all.

We know that this path is blocked by corporate libertarians fighting progress at every term, giving lip service to women but not walking the talk on fair pay, family leave and childcare so essential to American families. The ALEC and Koch Brothers-funded opposition to working families must be stopped with a strong progressive fight for liberty and justice for all - and representation from all in the meeting room, courtroom or boardroom.