"Insider" Women Are Still Making A Difference

When the Senate voted recently for the harsh Republican welfare repeal bill, Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Ill., stood alone among the women senators in opposing it.

This did not go unnoticed by reporters. Despite their invitations, we resisted the temptation to lash out at the other women senators and renounce our strategy of electing more feminist women.

We are convinced that real, lasting change can only come from having women's rights supporters both outside and inside the system -- in much larger numbers. While activists must hold insiders accountable, even when they are operating in an ugly, hostile climate, we must also recognize the valuable roles each of us plays.

As we held protests outside, some of the women senators helped strip the welfare bill of provisions that would have plunged even more women and children deeper into poverty. They paid a very high price for these minor changes -- they agreed to vote for the Senate bill. When House-Senate conferees came out with their cruel version, the Democratic women in the Senate voted against it.

The difference women make was most evident after the 1992 sweep in which women won top political posts in unprecedented numbers.

Colleagues of Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., must have been as moved as we were by her testimony about losing her friend Melinda to ovarian cancer. They approved a record amount of funding for women's health research.

Surely the story Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told about losing her first job when she became pregnant was helpful in passing the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Passionate statements about racism by Sen. Moseley-Braun convinced her colleagues to revoke the special protection they had granted the Daughters of the Confederacy insignia, which bears a Confederate flag.

When more than two dozen women lodged allegations of sexual misconduct against former Sen. Bob Packwood, strong leadership by Sens. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., together with our public pressure, forced him to resign.

Three-fourths of the women senators had voted in favor of public hearings on Packwood. If three-fourths of the men had voted that way, or if women held seats in Congress in numbers anywhere near our 51 percent representation in the general population, Packwood would have been ousted much sooner.

Even in the current Congress, Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, R-Kan., is pushing for reforms that would make health insurance more portable and accessible. She is co-sponsoring, with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., a bill that would prevent insurance companies from dropping people when they switch jobs and from denying coverage for preexisting conditions.

While NOW's political action committees sometimes endorse a man over a woman, if we had to pick legislators in a dark room we'd want to end up with 50 percent women and 50 percent men. Though we know we can usually count on a few good men, it is still a valid generalization that women have different life experiences and take the lead on different issues -- issues such as public health, education, discrimination, abortion and birth control.

Our strategy has to continue to focus on recruiting and running strong feminist women -- at all levels -- and turning out the women's vote. A decade of electoral work after we lost the Equal Rights Amendment, combined with threats to abortion rights and the spectacle of senators grilling Anita Hill, resulted in 1992's so-called "Year of the Woman."

In 1994, candidates were not talking about our issues and women and people of color stayed home. As one of our most popular T-shirts puts it, "Newt Happens -- when 61 percent of the people don't vote."

Now a vast array of women's rights are under attack daily in the 104th Congress -- reproductive freedom, poor women's very survival, affirmative action, civil rights and lesbian and gay rights. They're even attacking funding for new Violence Against Women Act programs that Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, repeatedly insisted were "not pork."

Progressive groups -- especially women, civil rights, lesbian and gay rights and labor -- will not let our issues simmer on the back burner this year. In fact, we're already working together on a major Fight the Right March set for April 14 in San Francisco.

And we have reason to be optimistic. Public opinion polls are finally starting to show people understand Congress is trying to go too far.

Our long-term goal is to get more feminist women in the political pipeline by the year 2002. That's when the next census will result in reapportionment and redistricting of political districts, more open seats and greater opportunities for women.

It took more than 70 years to get women the vote in this country. We know it will take years longer before we build the critical mass to wield a fair share of power on Capitol Hill.

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