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National NOW Times >> Special Edition, 2001 >> Article

Envisioning the Future of Feminist Leadership in Congress

by Linda Berg, Political Director

When Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., smashed through the congressional glass ceiling in October 2001 to win the position of Minority Whip, she became the highest-ranking woman in congressional history.

The good news is that quite a few feminist women like Pelosi have seized power in the U.S. House and Senate and the Democratic Party in a remarkably short period of time. The bad news, of course, is that women still are only 13.6 percent of Congress.

When Pelosi was first elected in 1987, she followed Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who had made history the year before by becoming the first Democratic woman senator elected to a Senate seat not previously held by her husband, and the first woman ever to serve in both the House and Senate. At that time, only 23 women (11 Republicans and 12 Democrats) served in the U.S. House.

Even though women now serve at all-time high levels—60 in the House and 13 in the Senate—it's not possible to say that all of them support the advancement of women's rights. However, the feminists that NOW worked so hard to elect to the House and Senate have moved up the leadership ladder into positions where they can finally exercise power on behalf of women.

A Woman's Place is in the "House"

In the House, where the Republicans still hold sway, feminists in leadership are not yet as visible. It is important to note, however, that Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., will assist Minority Whip Pelosi as chief deputy minority whip. Gandy says: "Imagine the 'whipping' these two will stir up before a vote concerning women's rights!"

Additionally, Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., the new chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is charged with orchestrating the Democratic takeover of the House. NOW is confident she'll be on the lookout for strong women candidates.

Feminist women may not yet control House committees, but they nonetheless exercise power. Rep. Patsy Mink, D-Hawaii, is the ranking member of the 21st Century Competitiveness Subcommittee of the Education and Workforce Committee of the House, which controls welfare reform and is considered by some to be the most powerful subcommittee of the Education and Workforce Committee of the House. When Mink needed a hearing witness on welfare reform this November, she called Martha Davis of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund to ensure that women's voices would be heard.

Many ranking members of important House committees and subcommittees are feminist women who make important albeit less visible contributions on behalf of women. Besides holding the position of whip, Pelosi serves as the ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which should make us breathe a little easier in this time of crisis. And Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., serves as ranking member of the subcommittee on Human Rights of the House International Relations Committee, which should benefit women in Afghanistan and around the world.

Women Moving Up in Senate

Feminist leadership is most powerful in the U.S. Senate, where the Democrats achieved majority status in May 2001. The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, the party's electoral arm in the Senate, is headed by a woman, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., for the first time in its history. Murray, who was elected with strong NOW/PAC support in 1992—known as "The Year of the Woman"—publicly recalls the days when her candidacy was ridiculed because she was just a "mom in tennis shoes." When she evaluates women candidates for the Senate in the future, she's not likely to accept the conventional wisdom that continues to belittle women candidates.

Imagine the future of feminist leadership in the Senate: One day the Secretary of the Democratic Conference—the highest ranking Democratic woman in the Senate—could be Sen. Mikulski. Women are already positioned to chair three subcommittees of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee: Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., on the District of Columbia subcommittee; Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., on the Military Construction subcommittee; and Mikulski on the Veterans Administration, HUD and Independent Agencies subcommittee.

On the Armed Services Committee, Landrieu could chair the Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee, a position which has clearly risen in importance since Sept. 11.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., could chair the vitally important International Operations and Terrorism subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as well as the subcommittee on Superfund, Toxics, Risk and Waste Management of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

Sen. Mikulski could chair the subcommittee on Aging of the Health Education, Labor and Pensions Subcommittee—a critical appointment for women. And Sen. Feinstein could chair the crucial Technology, Terrorism and Government Information subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee.

"Just imagine how much progress we will make once women hold these powerful positions," said NOW President Kim Gandy, who also contemplates the committees Senators Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., could one day control. "Now it's up to us to make it happen."

Building Leaders for Women

When NOW/PAC met with each of these women as they launched their congressional runs, they demonstrated unwavering commitment to all of NOW's core issues. They supported reproductive rights without restriction, economic and constitutional equality for women, affirmative action and the elimination of violence against women, and civil rights for all, with special emphasis on equal rights for people of color, lesbians and gays. As candidates, they promised to be leaders on feminist issues, and their achievements thus far as officeholders bear strong promise for the future.

However, while the nation focuses on terrorism and national security, attention to policy issues affecting women is suffering. Gandy warns that feminists must not—in the rush for justice and safety—lose sight of our goals for women.

"We cannot let the right-wing launch a stealth attack on our rights while the public is absorbed with external threats," said Gandy. "Electing more women like Pelosi and McKinney, will help ensure a feminist voice in government."

To support NOW Equality PAC and our efforts to identify and support feminists running for office, click here. NOW Equality PAC can help women running at the state and local level fill the pipeline and move up to high positions like the women above.

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