Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Few things in the progressive world have changed as dramatically since 1990 as the role and power of women in public life. But the change has not been all in one direction. And 20 years later, it's fair to ask the question: Do women, on the issues of highest priority to women, have the clout that they ought to in progressive politics?

The early 1990s seemed like a promising new beginning for progressive women, driven in part by the discouraging politics and policies of the previous decade. In 1989, the Supreme Court had ruled in the Webster decision, allowing restrictions on the use of state funds, facilities, and employees for services related to abortion. Then, in 1991, women watched in astonishment as Anita Hill faced a panel of 14 white men intent on discrediting her testimony and her motives. That image of a black woman being viciously confronted, says Siobhan "Sam" Bennett, president of the Women's Campaign Forum, was a "cultural tsunami" for women.

Reflecting now on the heady days of the early 1990s, Gloria Feldt, a past president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, says, "For me, what was happening was a shift from feeling like the battles had been won to feeling like we have a long way to go and we have to take hold of this agenda." Far from being embraced by the Democratic Party, she says, women in politics were "feeling like there was a mission to insert ourselves. ? Women were very, very engaged and activated, more so than for over a decade." It was that energy -- sparked by fear and frustration -- that drove a handful of women's groups to mobilize energy for female candidates and that in 1992 -- the "Year of the Woman" -- increased the number of women in the Senate from two to six.

What followed were two decades of apparently phenomenal progress. We saw the appointment of the first two female secretaries of state, the passage of the Cairo agenda that reframed women's reproductive health as a human-rights issue, the evolution of strong anti-domestic-violence and anti-sex-discrimination law, and the selection of the first female speaker of the House. It was also a period when the gender gap in electoral politics widened, making the women's vote ever more central to Democratic victories.

So how is it possible that, almost two decades after the Year of the Woman, Bennett could ask, "Will 2010 go down in history as the 'Anti-Year of the Woman?'" as she wrote in an angry piece on the Huffington Post in late May. And how is it possible that the Republicans can claim the Year of the Woman as their mandate this year, without apparent irony. It's time that anyone concerned with the future of women in progressive politics begin wondering hard.

Bennett was writing about the slate of female candidates for 2010 facing a "lack of party support, lack of recruitment, ingrained sexism, and male-dominated leadership of both parties." (Bennett, who herself has run several times for lower office and ran for Congress in 2008, says she has "never been through a more misogynistic experience in my life.") But the problem isn't limited to Bennett, or to this year. Professors Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox have interviewed thousands of successful and politically active women working in areas that are often pipelines to a political career. They have consistently found that these women, from both major political parties, "are less likely than similarly situated men to be recruited to run for public office by all types of political actors" -- in fact about half as likely.

What is perhaps most amazing is that this discrepancy is true, as Lawless and Fox have noted, despite the fact that women fare as well as male candidates when they actually do run. In other words, the problem isn't an electoral bias -- it is bias in the boy's club itself. And what is perhaps most sad is that, according to their studies, Democrats only appear to do better at recruiting women: "Democratic and Republican women are equally unlikely to have received encouragement to run for office from elected officials [or] from party leaders." Women's groups on the left encouraging their own women likely make up the difference.

This year the right is citing candidates such as Nikki Haley, who fought tooth and nail to win the Republican nomination for governor in South Carolina, and Meg Whitman, who won that nomination in California. But while some high-profile races include Republican women, the numbers don't actually pan out. "Although Republicans boast that they have more women running for House seats than ever before," wrote Erin McPike in the National Journal in May, "few have become prominent contenders. Of the 115 candidates identified by the National Republican Congressional Committee as its 'Young Guns,' just nine are women. Only two women are in the top tier of that program."

But the disheartening news isn't limited to the fact that women's election to Congress has plateaued around 17 percent, putting the United States 84th in the world in terms of women's representation in the national legislature. When you talk to advocates for progressive women's causes, there are more than a hefty handful -- many of whom flocked to Barack Obama's side during the primary season -- who will say that it's gotten awfully crowded under the bus since the president took office.

Sadly, we are in many ways back where we were two decades ago. The misogynistic culture of Washington was laid bare again in the petty and ruinous attacks on Hillary Clinton and her bid for the presidency. And the reproductive-health policies embraced by President Obama since his election have been, overwhelmingly, disappointing. These are nearly too numerous to count, and every activist has her own pet peeve. There's that campaign announcement candidate Obama made to Planned Parenthood in 2007, saying that "the first thing I'd do, as president, is sign the Freedom of Choice Act." The promise turns out to have been nothing but words to make his audience happy. Instead, in the first weeks of the Obama presidency, we got the decision to strip family-planning funds out of the federal stimulus bill. And that's to say nothing of the humiliating disaster of health-care reform, which Jehmu Greene, president of the Women's Media Center and an adviser to Clinton during her presidential campaign, describes as "the greatest rollback of reproductive freedoms in a generation."

If women's groups really wanted to get out from under that bus, they'd exploit the widespread anger over these betrayals -- regardless of whether Obama, congressional Democrats, Bart Stupak, or the Catholic bishops are mostly responsible -- to drive a second Year of the Woman, and indeed there are aggressive campaigns by groups like the Women's Campaign Forum and the White House Project to motivate women to run and vote as women, for women. "I think Anita Hill did a beautiful job in disturbing complacency," Bennett notes. "So what do we do now to affect and disturb complacency? We all have to raise the alarm and say that this must be fixed. And I can't think of a better thing to wake everybody up than the Stupak-Pitts Amendment [to the health-care bill]. What an insult. What a bipartisan insult." Across the country, there are more programs to support women's candidacies than ever before, and they are coordinating with one another in ways that they did not the last time around.

But politically speaking, among the powerful women's advocates in Washington, there's a key ingredient missing, and that's courage. Just look at the responses to health-care reform from groups like Planned Parenthood and NARAL, which had supported Obama during the presidential campaign and clearly expected some loyalty in return: Their statements about health care seemed desperate to find a way to make lemonade from the lemons. Or remember the extent to which some feminists were willing to insist, during the presidential campaign, that Obama would be the better candidate for feminists: He has turned out to be neither more progressive nor more daring than the most mainstream of Democrats, while on women's issues he has represented the seductive liberal call, as one editor of this magazine wrote half a decade ago, for the Democrats "to become the party of the common good."

The problem with that call, however, is that all too often the "common good" may be commonly good for the Democrats without being good for all Democrats. At least some who have long stood under the Democratic umbrella are finally realizing that fact. In late spring, the Courage Campaign, an upstart California gay-rights group, circulated a petition advocating the overturning of "don't ask, don't tell" and the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. "Dear Democrats, we need to talk," the letter, written in the voice of a spurned lover, began. "This may be a hard letter to read, but I need to figure out if this relationship is still healthy for me." The petition was light in tone but serious in message. "I'm just not getting what I need out of this relationship. You rarely call me anymore, and when you do it's to ask for money. And I just can't get excited anymore by your empty promises and half-gestures."

It's a letter women's groups could write today. But I haven't seen any new women's group with "courage" as its first name. The "common good" culture of progressive politics has become so prevalent that women's groups seem unwilling or unable to see that progressive interests and progressive women's interests are not always the same thing. "[Obama] will throw pretty much anybody under the bus to get to where he wants to go," Feldt comments. "What [women] have to do is to make it impossible for him not to stick with us. We have to be in his face every minute, and that's what I don't see happening right now." Instead, women are still being nice, holding up the umbrella so that everyone stays dry. But they're so busy holding up the umbrella, they don't notice that they're the ones getting wet.