Women's Legislative Priorities
Women occupy a unique place in American society. Although women form a majority of the population, they face biases at work, at home, in society and in public policy. It is imperative that Congress fairly represents women, both in the number of women participating in the lawmaking process and the passage of laws that support women. While women are vastly outnumbered in Congress, they can play a significant role in adopting legislation to forward women’s interests.
Women In Congress
Despite women’s clear aptitude for the job in Congress and their overrepresentation in colleges and universities, they make up less than a quarter of America’s legislative bodies, limiting their capacity to improve the legal and cultural biases against women. To help combat this gap, women legislators have established women’s issues caucuses, magnifying their voice and allowing women to better fight for issues most dear to them.
The true power of women’s caucuses is to forge consensus on specific legislation–the basis for effective lawmaking. As legislation moves beyond an individual’s office, it is shaped by party politics, legislative processes, other members’ political agendas, media coverage and legislative leadership, all of which are likely to be dominated by men. There is, therefore, a strong incentive to create supportive bipartisan coalitions to advance a common agenda.
Despite the pursuit of a consensus on how to best advance women’s concerns, there can be strong partisan splits over specific policies. After the election of the extremely partisan and conservative 104th Congress, newly elected Republican women, as a unified bloc, shunned the Congressional Caucus on Women’s Issues, advocating instead for conservative policies.
Women’s activist groups likely play a strong role in determining how congresswomen approach women’s issues and whether they run for office. Research shows that women tend to have low political ambition but are just as likely to win their elections as men. Although women are hesitant to run for office on their own, they are just as likely as men to pursue political office if it is suggested or asked of them.
Despite all of these efforts to make up for the numerical gap between women and men in Congress and state legislatures, the prevalence of men can make pursuing women’s issues tedious.
Defining Women’s Issues
Although most states define women’s issues in slightly different ways, they can be:
- Women’s health (especially reproductive health)
- Workplace and pay equity
- Family safety net
- Women in the military
- Human trafficking
- Violence against women
In the past few years, social issues affecting women, specifically healthcare and reproductive rights, have taken a prominent position in political and media discussions as very partisan issues. But women don't always agree with their party’s position. For example, many conservatives favor cuts in government spending, but these cuts have repeatedly been aimed at programs women rely on, such as after-school programs, Social Security and Planned Parenthood. Liberals are more likely to support women’s reproductive rights, but some women may find it difficult to reconcile this with their religious views.
Legislators will also have to be wary of how they discuss mothers in the workplace. After Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen critiqued Ann Romney’s lack of workplace experience, this issue shot back into the media. Only 21 percent said that mothers working outside the home has benefited society, so a presumed stance against stay-at-home moms could be politically harmful. Furthermore, 27 percent of stay-at-home moms are Hispanic, a key voter bloc, versus 15 percent of working mothers.
There have been recent showings of blatant disrespect towards women. Women legislators are more likely to speak in favor of women’s rights, but have been prevented multiple times from testifying in Congress or voicing their opinion on these issues. One example: Rush Limbaugh's attack on Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke, where he referred to her as a "slut" because she advocated for insurance coverage for contraception. Coupled with harsh legislation, these actions have fueled accusations that Republicans are waging a war against women. In fact, some have gone as far as to question: Are women the new gay?
Priorities for 2012
With all of the media and political attention, it seems as if women’s issues will play a major role in the upcoming elections, and that they might tip the scale in favor of President Obama. Even if a woman views herself as a conservative, many predict that a vast number of independent and Republican women will base their vote on these gender issues more so than on politics.
Recent polls claim that women’s issues are not actually women’s political priorities and will not decide the election. Although women consider these issues important, there are other problems that will take precedence when they decide how to vote. Republicans do not foresee the birth control backlash to affect the election in the long run. Only 55 percent of women believe that birth control is an important policy issue, and this holds true for other women’s issues. In the upcoming election, there is evidence to suggest that the economy will be the main focus of all voters.
The National Council of State Legislatures (NCSL) surveyed its members regarding what they believe will dominate the coming legislative sessions, and compiled a list of 12 focus areas for the coming year. Although many of these areas touch on women’s rights, there are none specifically devoted to women.
The National Organization for Black Elected Legislative Women (NOBEL) has made poverty their top priority for the year. Their December newsletter points out the glaring disparity in poverty between men and women as well as the high rate of poverty in African-Americans.
The National Conference of Black Mayors (NCBM) has a similar structure with its Black Women Mayors Caucus, which promotes women’s issues from within NCBM while also promoting black women mayoral candidacies. The top priority for NCBM in 2012 is blocking voter ID laws and maintaining early voting. They argue that laws that implement ID requirements and repeal early voting are discriminatory, given that African-Americans are more likely to use early voting and are more than twice as likely to not own an ID.
While legislative sessions in 2012 have been extremely busy and contentious, women are well placed to advance their causes and make their voices heard.
What can you do?
Register to vote and ensure that the lawmakers you vote for support women’s rights. Log on to:
- Express opinions on laws that affect women.
- Take action on issues that affect women with the League of Women Voters.
- Read the "Say it, Sister" blog to educate women on current issues and help them advocate for their rights.
- Reach out to young women voters who are particularly powerful in the upcoming election.
- Help young women run for office.
- Find women’s campaign organizations.
- Read The 2008 Book of Resolutions for guidance and calls to action on elections and politics, specifically, ¶5072 Encouragement to Vote in Elections, ¶164 The Political Community.
Anzia, Sarah, and Christopher Berry. "The Jackie (and Jill) Robinson Effect: Why Do Congresswomen Outperform Congressmen? [DRAFT]." Stanford University. May 24, 2010. (accessed January 17, 2012).
Hawkesworth, Mary, et al. "Legislating By and For Women: A Comparison of the 103rd and 104th Congresses." November 2001. Center for American Women and Politics. 18 January 2012 . Page 17.
Lawless, Jennifer L. and Richard L. Fox. "Men Rule: The Under-Representation of Women in U.S. Politics." January 2012. 17 January 2012.
"Women, Work and Motherhood: A Sampler of Recent Pew Research Survey Finding." Pew Research Center Publications. N.p., 13 Apr. 2012. Web. 18 June 2012.
Johnson, Chris. "In 2012 Election, Are Women the New Gay?" Washington Blade. N.p., 29 Mar. 2012. Web. 18 June 2012.
Poggione, Sarah. "Exploring Gender Differences in State Legislators' Policy Preferences." June 2004. Political Research Quarterly. 18 January 2012
Bellantoni, Christina. "Andrea Mitchell: What's Driving Women in the 2012 Election."More.com. More: Women of Style and Substance, 22 May 2012. Web. 20 June 2012.
Kissinger, Meg. "In Election Year, Women's Issues Take Center Stage." Journal Sentinel(n.d.): n. pag. JS Online. 22 Apr. 2012. Web. 18 June 2012.
Feldmann, Linda. "Gender Gap Daunting for GOP: Why Women's Vote Is Key." The Christian Science Monitor. N.p., 3 Apr. 2012. Web. 18 June 2012.
Newport, Frank. "U.S. Voters' Top Election Issues Don't Include Birth Control."Gallup.com. N.p., 2 Apr. 2012. Web. 20 June 2012.
NCSL. "Top 12 Legislative Issues of 2012." 3 January 2012. National Conference of State Legislatures. 18 January 2012.
HB131 and SB219
HB126 and SB221
California Women's Legislative Caucus. Priorities. 18 January 2012.
Women Legislators of the Maryland General Assembly, Inc. "2011 Session Legislative Wrap-Up." 2011. Women Legislators of Maryland. 2012 January 2012.
NOBEL-Women. "December Newsletter." December 2011. National Organization of Black Elected Legislative Women. 18 January 2012.
National Council of Black Mayors. November 2011 Newsletter. November 2011. 18 January 2012.