Revolutionary women are changing Washington, but old habits die hard
Two kinds of revolution are taking place on Capitol Hill. Both are led by women, and both are transforming politics. But we must remain aware of the old fashioned sexism that threatens to derail these advances.
The record numbers of women in Congress and the incredible diversity they represent is bringing new energy and purpose to Washington. But beyond the numbers, and behind the scenes, a quiet revolution is taking place that may prove more consequential, and even more historic.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her leadership team of feminist lawmakers are drafting legislation that protects women’s rights, promotes economic justice and stops policies that discriminate against women and girls.
Innovative, progressive women now chair some of the most important House Committees, and they are moving through a backlog of urgent issue priorities. Groups like mine, along with our vital grassroots activists, have been seeking meaningful, effective change for decades, and now we have allies in control of one of the co-equal branches of government who can make that change a reality.
The new women in Congress are familiar to us. They’ve been our colleagues and friends in private life, and they are now our allies in Washington.
It’s about time that Congress includes public policy experts like Rep. Lauren Underwood of Illinois, who at 32 is the youngest African American woman elected to the House. When Underwood, who has a heart condition, learned that her Republican Congressman voted for a bill that broke his promise to protect such pre-existing conditions, she ran against him and won in an upset.
And we need more advocates like Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif), who recently questioned Equifax CEO Mark Begor at a Financial Services Committee hearing and asked if he would be willing to share his social security, birthdate, and address with the public. Begor declined and explained that he was worried about identity theft. At that point, Porter asked, “If you agree that exposing this kind of information…creates harm, therefore you’re unwilling to share it, why are your lawyers arguing in federal court that there was no injury and no harm created by your data breach?”
Game, set and match to the women of Congress.
From the Michael Cohen hearings to the daily C-SPAN schedule, voters are seeing women members of Congress who don’t posture, don’t perform and don’t ask rambling questions that keep the focus on themselves. They stick to the facts and expose the truth. But not surprisingly, that’s the basis for an unparalleled wave of sexist attacks.
We have to remain ever vigilant about falling back into old patterns of judging female candidates and lawmakers by different standards. People who worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign say that they were constantly hearing the same vague complaints from voters: “There’s just something about her I don’t like,” voters (mostly men) would say.
Women know what that “something” is. Today, sexism is at the root of the storyline that there’s something untrustworthy about young women in Congress who have strong opinions, or who dress differently. Sexism is also clearly driving news coverage of the 2020 presidential campaign where women candidates are the subject of far more negative stories than men, with many focused on their personal temperament or personality.
But when they break through these barriers — and women always do break through barriers — we can change the conversation around the issues that matter to people. The new Congress is working on priorities that have been ignored for decades. And women are in many cases leading this debate.
We know the legislative change we need won’t happen overnight. Donald Trump is still in the White House and the Republican Senate is unwilling to defy him. But we also know that when the conversation changes, so does the law. From marriage equality — which is now the law of the land —to “Medicare for all” going from radical to mainstream in just the past four years, women are leading these transformative discussions, and the public and media must be open to hearing our voices without bias.
This is how we bring about lasting change. It takes time, persistence and energy — qualities women have always had in abundance. Watch what we do next.
Toni Van Pelt, president of the National Organization for Women.