New Year, New Congress: Political Clashes Imminent

After Feminist Breakthroughs, Losses in '96 Election

NOW/PAC interns celebrated with U.S. Rep. Eva ClaytonBy Diane Minor
Communications Director

Photo: NOW/PAC interns celebrated with U.S. Rep. Eva Clayton, D-N.C., far left, and members of her family after Clayton was re-elected to Congress.

Alternating cheers and groans at the National NOW Action Center election night 96 said it all. We won important breakthrough victories but also suffered a few crushing losses that pose a bad political omen for the New Year.

"Because of the gender gap, women's votes put us in the driver's seat," said NOW President Patricia Ireland. "This is not the time to fall asleep at the wheel."

For the first time in U.S. history, the majority of women voters supported the winning presidential candidate, while the majority of men voted for the loser. Women were more likely to vote for President Clinton over Bob Dole by a margin of 17 points. African American and Hispanic women backed him by an even wider margin.

It was the year of the women's agenda. President Clinton and other candidates stressed their support for family and medical leave, the Violence Against Women Act, child support, breast cancer research, even a 48-hour minimum hospital stay for new mothers.

Feminist candidates re-gained much of the ground lost in 1994, when some of our best friends in Congress were defeated. We didn't lose a single feminist woman this year, including four African American women threatened by re-districting, and we picked up a half dozen new ones. We also helped elect the first woman governor of New Hampshire and the first woman to represent Louisiana in the U.S. Senate.

These breakthroughs were the result of inspired campaign work by NOW/PAC staff and interns, local activists and new volunteers -- ranging from the van load of student interns who went door-to-door in trailer parks in North Carolina to an unprecedented NOW/PAC voters guide posted on the Web that was named "Site of the Day" by CNN. (See "Campaign '96 " ).

The golden moments NOW activists experienced during campaign 96 will be important fuel for the fires we'll need this winter. Harsh political realities such as voter approval of an anti-affirmative action ballot measure in California are also theresult of the fall elections. (See "California Repeals . . .,").

While the number of women and feminists in both chambers increased slightly, the overall political makeup of the U.S House and Senate is still predominantly conservative. With 11 new women in the House -- eight Democrats, seven of whom were endorsed by NOW/PAC, including the five who defeated incumbents -- the total number of women there increased by three to 51 of 435. The number of women in the Senate remains nine of 100.

However, anti-abortion majorities now exist in both the U.S. House and Senate (See "New Congress Poses Threat . . . ,"). And although the Republican majority in the Newt Gingrich-led House has narrowed, this is offset by a slight increase in the number of Republicans in the Senate and the fact that the new Republican senators are more conservative.

"We face the very real danger of a Newt in sheep's clothing," said Ireland. "While he promises a `kinder, gentler' Congress, he and his allies are hard at work laying plans to advance their same anti-women agenda."

As this issue went to press, Ireland and other NOW leaders were setting a strategy for the New Year and the new century. Their immediate concerns included pressuring President Clinton to keep making Cabinet appointments that "look like America," as he once pledged.

And, given that the allegations of sexual abuse and racial discrimination against the U.S. Army and Texaco surfaced the same week as the elections, NOW has new fodder to make a strong case for the administration to lead by example in supporting affirmative action.

In addition to maintaining a commitment to diversity in appointments, NOW has urged the administration both to file a brief challenging California's ballot initiative and actively to oppose any effort to pass a similar measure in Congress. At least 26 states are considering similar anti-affirmative action legislation.

Motivating/Mobilizing Activists

Late-term abortion and other reproductive rights, affirmative action and entitlements are all issues on which NOW leaders expect to have to mount defensive efforts in the new Gingrich-Lott-led Congress.

"Our loss on affirmative action was a warning shot," Ireland said. "Political extremists plan to put back on their camouflage, toning down their rhetoric but not their actions. They have test-marketed a strategy of false civility that strips women and people of color of our civil rights. It will be coming soon to Congress and to states nationwide."

Activists face the huge challenge of motivating people who seemed at best apathetic last year. Turnout was the lowest it's been in about three quarters of a century, with non-voters outnumbering voters among those in the voting-age population. Although more voters were willing to identify themselves as lesbian or gay in exit polling, voter turnout was lower among usually highly motivated lesbian and gay voters, too.

NOW leaders are already setting plans to mobilize activists and recruit candidates for the elections that will follow the year 2000 census. At least 11 House seats could shift from the industrial Northeast to Sunbelt states. As Ireland said after the election, this is not a time "when any progressive person can rest easy."

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