Upon Her Shoulder: Women Gain Wider Role in Government and Politics

BY Hans Johnson

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Nancy Pelosi's ascension is merely one manifestation of a massive but subtle shift toward women leaders.

When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came to Washington’s Kennedy Center in late December to take in “The Messiah,” the familiar lyrics drowned out for an evening the drumbeat of criticism over a war and an election lost by her party’s leaders.

Rice and the administration need no reminder of the biblical prophecy proclaimed by the chorus–that all can “be changed in a moment.” The very working women who broke the glass ceiling to facilitate Rice’s rise to executive power abandoned the GOP at the polls in 2006. Women gave 56 percent of their votes last November to Democrats. In the process, they helped seat the largest number of female Democratic governors (six), senators (11), representatives (53) and state legislators (1,182), according to the Center for American Women in Politics.

The most enduring afterimage from the nation’s change in course so far has been Nancy Pelosi’s brandishing of the speaker’s gavel before a new Congress. But her ascension is merely one manifestation of a massive but subtle shift toward women leaders.

In Missouri, Claire McCaskill bested the man who had beaten Jean Carnahan just four years earlier. Democrats claimed another victory in Chester County, Penn., just outside Philadelphia, which has been a Republican bastion since the days of the women’s suffrage movement. But in the country’s last major state legislative contest to be decided, Democrat Barbara McIlvaine Smith–a grandmother whose campaign manager summoned her to the election office from a pre-Thanksgiving hair appointment–won a dramatic 28-vote victory on absentee ballots. The win handed control of the state House of Representatives back to her party for the first time in 12 years.

Like Missouri, a state whose outcome in presidential contests most closely predicts the country’s result, Chester County is home to a host of independent and moderate Republican women. This bloc has held the keys to political power in state and national races since Hillary Rodham Clinton’s husband wooed them in ‘92, reversing a two-decade trend toward conservatives.

In the new year, writers and historians marked the passing of a feminist pioneer, whose work foreshadowed the dawn of women’s political power. At 94, poet and teacher Tillie Olsen had spent more than 70 years describing the circumstances of working women and resurrecting the careers of female authors excluded from great-books surveys. Most notable was her extended essay Silences, from 1978. As irascible as she was illuminating, Olsen attracted two generations of scholars to her manuscripts and her apartment overlooking San Francisco Bay to gain insight on a life of labor, art and organizing.

Olsen first gained notice in 1934 with her poem, “I Want You Women Up North to Know,” which exposed sweatshop abuse of preteen girls in a San Antonio garment factory. She lived just long enough to see South Texas union members beat an incumbent Congressman and working-family nemesis, Henry Bonilla, in a December runoff he was favored to win. The victory capped Democrats’ congressional resurgence at a 30-seat gain.

Amid the ceremony of claiming their new majority, Democratic women made note of a changing of the guard both in Washington and in the women’s movement. Lost, in 2006, was former Texas governor Ann Richards. But her daughter Cecile Richards treads in her footsteps, as the head of Planned Parenthood, a pivotal force in women’s health care, leadership training and political mobilization. Equally formidable are other feminist leaders in important non-feminist organizations: Mary Jean Collins at People For the American Way, Janet Murguia at the National Council of La Raza, Kristina Wilfore at the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center and Arizona state representative Kyrsten Sinema, who led the first-ever statewide campaign to sink a referendum barring recognition of committed same-sex partners.

With today marking the 34th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, these standard-bearers may soon face their toughest challenge yet. Preserving Roe has been a triumph of women’s bipartisan empowerment. Its longevity has relied as much on leaders like Republican and former justice Sandra Day O’Connor as on Democrat and longtime legal crusader Eleanor Holmes Norton. As GOP ‘08 frontrunner John McCain flip-flops, he now advocates Roe’s demise. The next two years are a crucial test of women’s influence.

Bush’s male Supreme Court appointees may have the legal say-so. But the coalitions forged by Pelosi, McCaskill and the women leaders in Washington’s top interest groups will determine whether Roe’s promise of privacy, autonomy and bodily integrity is extended to a new generation.

Like the specter of loss of choice, the term of Rice and Bush may be recalled for their rollback on basic freedoms for women. In November, the president named an anti-abortion activist, Eric Keroack, to head the federal Office of Population Affairs. On the international front, the administration launched a preemptive war against forces of extreme Islam in Afghanistan whom they blamed, among other crimes, for repression of women. Yet they have sided with the same forces in withholding funds for life-saving family planning services through the United Nations Population Fund. (See ”A Little Help From My Friends”) The cut of $161 million over six years may be responsible for the needless suffering and deaths of several hundred women who rely on the U.N. bureau in 140 countries. The total funding cut does not cover even one full day of the Iraq war.

Provoked in part by these misplaced priorities, female leaders, such as Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), are framing new foreign aid goals aimed at providing basic needs and promoting freedom, not at gunpoint. The challenge, to cite 2006 National Book Award medalist Adrienne Rich, is to challenge the conditions that keep women “stooping to half our height” by changing policy to recognize their primary role in civic and economic life. In both foreign and domestic policy, the opportunity remains similar to Eleanor Roosevelt’s vision: a fuller taste of liberty for all people, through access to food, school, finance, and family planning and a greater ability to join unions.

In this way, the diverse group of women now answering the call to public service revives a legacy that converted protest into policy and made the founding principles of this country a credible standard for reform the world over. So powerful is this collective force of conscience that it will outlast even the Bush years.

Hans Johnson, a contributing editor of In These Times, is president of Progressive Victory, based in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. He is a columnist and commentator on labor, religion and trends in state and national politics.

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