In the wake of the takeover of Congress by opponents of women's rights, the National Organization for Women is resurrecting one of its slogans from the Reagan/Bush days, "We Won't Go Back!"
Although the number of women serving in both houses of Congress is holding steady at 56 of 535 members, only half of the NOW/PAC-endorsed feminist women prevailed. And though women ran in record numbers this year, 14 percent of women candidates for Congress were anti-abortion. Of the 10 new women elected, only five support abortion rights.
"We cannot sugarcoat the fact that we lost some of the best feminist women on Capitol Hill, they are g-o-n-e," said NOW President Patricia Ireland. "In their place are women who are anti-abortion and mean-spirited men who are gearing up to steamroll back our agenda."
With membership calls coming in from people shocked and upset by the election results, NOW immediately issued a news release calling for a new thrust to its nationwide mobilization on violence against women.
And in a six-page call to action sent to NOW leaders nationwide two weeks after the election, NOW's national officers emphasized the political urgency of these actions.
"Your participation will make the actions April 7-9 in Washington,
D.C., a strong show of support for women's rights at a time when it will
be crucial," they urged activists. "Together, we will build a force strong
enough to stop the hateful rhetoric and anti-woman agenda in Congress,
in the streets and in our homes."
The new so-called "leaders" are a rogues' gallery of anti-women men. Longtime enemies of women's rights Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., now chairs the powerful House Judiciary Committee and Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., now chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The most visible new Hill head honcho, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., spouts "family values" but tried to stiff his ex-wife out of a fair divorce settlement while she was recovering from cancer surgery.
The leading candidate for House Majority Whip is Rep. Richard (Dick) Armey, R-Texas, who says a Congress with only 10 percent women had gotten too "femcentric," and says he's heard enough about abortion rights already, it's just a matter of women being careless with their bodies.
Heir to the chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee is Bob Packwood, R-Ore., who has succeeded in delaying public hearings by the Senate Ethics Committee on charges that he sexually assaulted and harassed 29 former women employees.
Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., who told an anecdote calling Blacks "niggers" and saying "it's a hell of a challenge" to live with them in the nation's capital, is in line to chair a subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee that controls funding for the predominantly African-American District of Columbia.
Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., will have even more visibility now that he is Senate Majority Leader rather than Senate Minority Leader. Although this presidential hopeful has a smooth public persona, Dole is known as a ruthless in- fighter against issues such as adequate health care reform.
More subtle, inside-the-beltway style attacks are also likely, such as attempts by congressional oversight committees to stifle the work of the civil rights division of the Justice Department.
As news of the right wing takeover sank in and news of their real agenda leaked out, NOW's membership ranks soared by 10,000 members in one week alone. And supporters sent in five times their usual level of gifts over $500.
"We will need every penny, this will be a long fight," said NOW
Executive Vice President Kim Gandy, in an interview that ran on page one
of the Wall Street Journal, Jan. 28.
Congresswomen played pivotal roles in passing new laws on family leave, women's health, violence against women, anti-abortion violence and the ban on assault weapons. As a result, they were targeted for defeat in "stealth" campaigns that focused on crime and taxes by conservative forces such as the Christian Coalition, the N.R.A. and Rush Limbaugh.
Right wing groups poured millions of dollars into pivotal elections and reaped the successes. For example, the N.R.A. outspent James and Sarah Brady's group, Handgun Control, by about 10 to 1, nearly $4 million to less than $400,000, according to Handgun Control Legislative Director Robert Walker.
Right wing groups backed women candidates who opposed women's rights against feminist women incumbents in at least two key congressional races. One of NOW's strongest allies on the Hill, Rep. Jolene Unsoeld, D-Wash., was defeated by anti-feminist Linda Smith. Another abortion rights supporter, Rep. Karen Shephard, D-Utah, was defeated by right winger Enid Waldholtz.
Polling data, especially on gender breakdowns, showed a right wing backlash that was dubbed by some media pundits "the revenge of the angry white men." Exits polls "saw one of the strongest gender gaps in years . . . as men hardened their conservative views and showed more affinity for the Republican message," according to the Associated Press.
Men would have elected Oliver North, the Iran-Contra scandal key figure who calls women's rights activists "ultra feminists," to the U.S. Senate in Virginia, but women put incumbent Sen. Charles Robb over the top. Women also re- elected Sen. Dianne Feinstein; men preferred her opponent, Michael Huffington.
However, voter turnout was typically low. The Democratic National Committee calculates that a mere 250,000 votes in key races nationwide would have prevented the Republican takeover.
"Looking toward the 1996 elections, our goal must be to recruit more feminist women to run for all levels of public office," said NOW President Patricia Ireland. "We must also convince candidates to run strongly and firmly on women's rights issues, and not run away from them. Only then will the voter turnout provide a gender gap that will elect feminist women."