Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Identity Politics: Does More Women in Congress Mean More Protections for Women?

Twenty women were elected to the new 113th U.S. Senate, an historic-high representing 20% all of sitting senators.  Previously, only 24 other women have served as U.S. senator... ever. (Eleven of the 24 former women senators were short-term appointments made when male senators, usually their husbands, died. They resigned as soon as male successors were elected.) 

And 78 women will serve in the 113th U.S. House of Representatives, for a record-breaking 18% of all voting House members. 

All well and good, then,  that "... the Senate and House are starting to look a little bit more like the people they represent," as the New York Times phrased it. (Women cast 53% of 2012 presidential election votes, and were 50.8% of the U.S. population in the 2010 census.) 

The cogent question is: does more Congresswomen mean more protections and equal opportunities for women? Can and will more women-friendly legislation be passed because women comprise a higher minority-portion, 18.3%, of Congress?   

With more women in Congress in the 2013-14 term...

Will the "Violence Against Women Act" be reauthorized by Congress  in 2013? The VAWA was first passed in 1994, and reauthorized in 2000 and 2005. The Senate voted in April 2012 to again renew the act, but the Republican-led House opposed VAWA legislation, and failed to bring the bill to a vote. The "Violence Against Women Act"  provided: 

  • Several billion dollars toward investigation, prosecution of violent crimes against women;
  • Imposed automatic, mandatory restitution on those convicted;
  • Allowed civil charges to be filed in cases prosecutors chose to leave unprosecuted. 
  • Established the Office on Violence Against Women within the Department of Justice.
Will House hearings on birth control and womens' health services include women? Less than a year ago, Republican Congressman Darrell Issa spearheaded a House ten-person panel hearing on Obamacare's mandate that health insurers provide contraception... and failed to include women either on the panel or as hearing witnesses. 

When several organizations pressed for at least one woman to be included in Rep. Issa's Government Reform Committee hearing on birth control, Mr. Issa responded that the women didn't possess the "right credentials" to appear before his panel.

Will the Paycheck Fairness Act, proposed in 2012or other gender-based wage discrimination laws become higher priorities for Congress? Per the National Womens' Law Center:

"The Equal Pay Act (EPA) of 1963 made it illegal for employers to pay unequal wages to men and women who perform substantially equal work.  Yet today, women earn only 77 cents for every dollar earned by men.  The Paycheck Fairness Act would update and strengthen the EPA by improving remedies for pay discrimination, prohibiting employer retaliation, and facilitating class action suits in equal pay claims, among other strategies."
Education, college affordability, childcare and early learning, health care access, Social Security and retirement security, housing... the list of issues that uniquely impact womens' opportunities in the United States is lengthy.

Does more women in Congress mean more bills passed, not merely proposed, to provide protections, security, and equal opportunities for women?

Maybe. But not necessarily. 

In past eras when legislation focused on the rights and wrongs of issues... on morality, public safety, national responsibilities... Congress could be counted on to attempt to discern and do the right thing by all American citizens.

But over the past 40 years, and particularly in the 21st century, members of Congress have drifted toward framing their votes far more on their own best interest rather than the overall best interest of the country. Micro over macro. My needs over community needs. 

Reasons for the recent U.S. rise of "It's All About Me" voting over national best interests are unclear. Could be the modern-day flourishing in D.C. of lobbyist influence and massive corporate donations. 

Could also be startling economic disparities between America's wealthiest 1%, the withering of the middle-class, and related growth of the poor and working poor in America. As the portion of pie shared by 99% of Americans shrinks each year, millions more fight for their tiny sliver... simply to feed, clothe, shelter, and educate their families.  

More women in Congress certainly means more official attention to issues important to women. And the increase of women, Latinos, African-Americans, Asians, and all other citizens elected to Congress is a healthy step forward in ensuring fair and democratic representation for all Americans.  Obviously, it's positive that the Senate and House are starting to look a little bit more like the people they represent. 

But until women hold 50% of Congressional seats, and not 18.3% as in the new 113th Congress, the presence of a handful more Congresswomen does not portend more bills passed to provide protections, security, and equal opportunities for women. 

As four-term Sen Barbara Boxer of California observed, "I think that until we get to 50, we still have to fight because it's still a problem. I think this class as you look around, Republicans and Democrats. ... I think that because of this new class and the caliber of the people coming and the quality of the people coming, I think that hopefully in my lifetime -- and I really do hope and pray this is the case -- we will see 50 percent. "


Linda Lowen said...

Great work as usual, Deborah. I mentioned you and linked to your blog: http://womensissues.about.com/b/2013/01/11/will-2013-be-a-groundbreaking-year-for-women.htm

Deborah White said...

Thank you so much, Linda!