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June 21, 2002
The Official Word
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Congresswoman Barbara Lee

It wasn’t until college that I understood the importance of being involved and engaged in our political system. Until then, I had been involved in many community activities, but like many in my generation, I felt as though I had no stake in politics and that the voices of women and minorities were not being heard—that participation in the system was severely limited.

That all changed while I was a student at Mills College in Oakland, California. In 1972, Rep. Shirley Chisholm from New York, the first African-American woman elected to Congress, visited the college to talk about the importance of engaging in our political system. She encouraged me to register to vote and to get involved in politics.

Shirley Chisholm was a committed advocate for progressive causes, including improving education, ending discrimination, increasing the availability of child care and expanding the coverage of the Federal minimum wage laws to include domestic employment. In 1972, she also became the first woman to run for President, and I ended up working in her presidential campaign.

This was the beginning of my political involvement. Subsequently, I worked as an intern and staff member for Rep. Ron Dellums, who held the Congressional seat I hold today. We approached our work on Capitol Hill as activists, fighting for social, political and economic justice, and working to make sure that our laws addressed injustices. I continued with the same determination when I was elected to the California State Legislature in 1990—and I still approach my work in that manner.

All women face sexism and glass ceilings and the political system is no different from the corporate world, academia or any other profession. Women of color are also discriminated against on the basis of race, and there are other factors such as religious discrimination as well.

We have witnessed many victories in the fight for equality and social justice. There are an unprecedented number of women in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, and more women than ever are being elected to state and local offices. Funding for women’s health-related issues has steadily increased. Women now have more legal protections against sexual and other types of harassment, and, in general, issues affecting women are now more than ever debated by our nation’s leaders. However, much unfinished business remains.

Two things that need to be done right away are to pass the Equal Rights Amendment and to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The economic disparities between men and women also need to be closed. Every bill that affects women should focus on improving the lives of women. When looking at welfare, Social Security and Medicare—many things—there needs to be more input by women, and these issues need to be looked at from a woman’s perspective.

Women need to become engaged in the system at an early age. We need to work in political campaigns. We need to put forth requests for appointments to Boards and Commissions, and organize political support for those appointments. Women need to run for political office, become lobbyists and advocates for issues that are important to our lives. Young women need to work hard in school and apply for key positions as interns and as staff members for elected officials, locally and at the state and federal level. As more and more women become involved, those who hold positions of power can present opportunities to younger generations.

Start at the grassroots level. Become involved in community-based movements by volunteering your time and skills. This will help to develop organizational skills and give you experience in campaigning for change. Until we reach our goal of full public financing of campaigns, learn how to raise money for your cause. Get involved with candidates. Organize political campaigns or ballot measures and learn from the people you work with and from your experiences. The best thing women can do is be involved in the system and learn from it. Once you have the experience and the knowledge, you can best position yourself to change it.

Women must continue to be engaged in the political process and active in our communities. We must also transcend the traditional boundaries of what constitutes “women’s issues,” because all of the issues facing our nation affect women. We must remain committed to protecting a woman’s right to choose, to fighting for equal pay, to providing affordable housing, adequate health care and childcare, to protecting Social Security and Medicare, to safeguarding the environment, to improving public education and finding peaceful solutions to our foreign policy issues. As we move into the future, women have unique perspectives on ways to address problems we all face. We must be at the table. We must demand to be heard.

2002 The Institute for Public Affairs | Contact webmaster.
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