How the Other Half Votes

"Welcome to the lunch of the most powerful people in the Democratic Party," boomed Ellen Malcolm from the podium at the Emily's List luncheon on Tuesday of convention week. The crowd cheered. Packed with 2,000 paying Emily's List supporters paying $250 a plate, the room pulled in an easy half-million. A grinning Malcolm continued, announcing that George W. Bush and the leadership of the current Republican administration “aren't just conservatives. They are radicals. It is time for us unleash the power of women!”

Indeed, women were a popular commodity in Boston. It seemed everyone was intent on wooing the 22 million single women who didn't vote in 2000, brushing up on the statistics of the gender gap, cheerily encouraging women with buttons and slogans (“When Women Vote, Democrats Win!” and my favorite, “It's a man's world, unless women vote!”), and acknowledging women from the podium -- as did vice-presidential nominee John Edwards, positioning the Democratic Party as a friend to the woman poring over her bills at home, pledging that, “We hear her voice, we will embrace her and we will lift her up.” But it was the female voter who got parity, if not greater than equal time, with Iraq, with jobs, with the platform -- not the female leader or politician. It was a calculation that may have made sense for the Kabuki of prime time. Conventions are one thing; women's events are another.

The lineup on Tuesday -- both at Emily's List and afterwards at an afternoon rally organized by a new organization generously called “Revolutionary Women” -- showed the same kind of gender and leadership deficit that has plagued politics in general, and Dems who should know better, that spurred Ellen Malcolm to create Emily's List in 1985. While Emily's List has radically changed the percentage of women in politics, the gender gap in political representation is still cause for serious alarm. It made the celebration that the fiery luncheon set out to be seem, at best, overly optimistic. The statistics are dismal: Women still hold only 14 percent of the slots in national politics and around 20 percent of state positions, the latter a percentage that climbed steadily from 1971 until 1999, but has held steady or dropped in the last five years. The United States lurks somewhere between 52nd and 59th (depending on whom you ask) in the world with regard to female representation. Starker still is the fact that, this year, there wasn't a single woman floated as a viable vice-presidential candidate. Even the buzz around Jennifer Granholm, governor of Michigan, highlights the problem: All that agonizing about her being born a Canadian (and thus ineligible for the highest office) might feel less churlish if there was another promising woman mentioned in the same breath.

Might this not be part of the reason women aren't voting? Shortly before the convention, Emily's List announced new polling data. Women are more dissatisfied with the direction of the country than men, they found. Only 39 percent of women polled when asked to come up with anything positive about the country could offer a single positive statement for pollsters. Women make up 58 percent of undecided voters and 55 percent of swing voters. The press conference at the Emily's List offices portrayed all this as a net positive; Karen White, political director of Emily's List, described the situation as promising for Democrats as she reeled off the statistics from a PowerPoint presentation. The party knows it: 64 percent of Democratic “get out the vote” (GOTV) targets are women. But White also pointed out that women like candidates who are women, not just parties that feel like home. And yet in Boston it seemed women, like gays, were seen as best serving the party as voters rather than leaders.

Bundle these statistics together and look back at Tuesday of convention week, a big day of women's events: it feels like a missed opportunity. Other than the focus on Governor Granholm, the bright light from Michigan, these were events that could have been held anytime in the last ten years. Senator Barbara Mikulski! House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi! Former Texas Governor Ann Richards! Even the jokes were old. Richards got a chuckle from her audience when she said she and Mikulski campaigning together were called the “Thelma and Louise” of the Democratic Party. Didn't Thelma and Louise die?

The Revolutionary Women event held in the massive hall downstairs in the new Boston Convention and Exhibition Center was no different. After the luncheon, supporters and newcomers could attend panels on women's participation in politics or wander into the convention complex to view a horseshoe of booths promoting everything from Code Pink (an organization of women against the war, staffed at the convention by attendants wearing pink slips), to the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics, to The American Prospect. It felt like a college fair in a high-school gym. Running in Heels (the sexier name for a political action committee also known as “Women Against Bush” that's organizing cocktail parties to grab those nonvoting single gals) sold thongs and boyshorts that said “Kiss Bush” on the front and “Goodbye” on the back. A company called “Smart Women” sold cute baby doll T-shirts and tank tops, the proceeds of which went to no one but the company.

The rally sponsored by, and set up to highlight, Revolutionary Women, an organization created in February, was again all familiar faces (save one panelist, Massachusetts' Suffolk County Sheriff Andrea Cabral), a Clinton-era family reunion. Pelosi! Madeleine Albright! Carol Moseley Braun! Hillary Rodham Clinton! The event was organized by self-described “activist-philanthropist” Barbara Lee, a one-woman tour de force on issues of women's political participation. (Lee is the multimillionaire ex-wife of businessman Thomas Lee and a co-founder of the White House Project, an organization that admirably aims to “create a climate in America where it is normal for women to be governors, CEOs and president,” as well as the Barbara Lee Foundation, which is similarly dedicated to achieving full women's participation at every level of the Democratic process.)

The Revolutionary Women rally was a funny mix of GOTV efforts mixed in with a strange set of Hillary for President statements that seemed as much a means of firing up the mostly female audience as a serious push to get Hillary back to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Pelosi and Moseley Braun both nudged the Senator from New York toward the executive office. Howard Dean tipped it off, his introduction of each woman accompanied by a pounding soundtrack (that techno song, “Y'all ready for this,”) which made each woman's entrance feel like wrestlers entering a WWF match.

“I'm on a mission to empower women!” exulted Lee, who pledged that the day's events, and these speakers, and this audience, were about “the promise of Seneca Falls.” Hillary herself told people to go to her Web site and download voter registration forms for any state in the union.

As Mikulski said in her talk to Emily's List, when she ran for office everyone said, “She doesn't look the part. Now, thanks to Emily, I am the part!”

It was meant to be rousing, and it was. Mikulski was the first woman elected to the Senate in her own right (not following a husband or father who died in office.) But one couldn't help but think that while Mikulski's shouldn't be the only part -- and that her face, as Senate-worthy as it is, might deserve to be surrounded by a few others.

Getting women to vote is obviously an imperative. Electing a few more of them should be too.

Sarah Wildman is a senior correspondent at The American Prospect.