For a year that ended up on a historic high for women's rights activists, 2006 started out with a series of lows.
In January, the Senate confirmed the appointment of Justice Samuel Alito, a pro-life conservative, to take the place of retiring centrist Sandra Day O'Connor. In February, Governor Mike Rounds of South Dakota signed the country's first statewide ban on virtually all abortions, a law abortion opponents hoped would serve as a legislative vehicle to challenge Roe v. Wade. And in April, the Republican-controlled Congress passed a budget resolution that called for steep cuts to federal programs that aid low-income women and children; shortly afterward, House appropriators got to work enacting much of the GOP's plan.
But in November, the year took a dramatic turn. On November 7, women won unprecedented political power in the midterm elections and made historic gains in Congress, and voters backed a repeal of the South Dakota abortion ban and turned down a pair of initiatives to restrict abortion rights—repudiating religious conservative views on abortion and the restrictive legislative mechanisms regarding abortion they tried to implement.
Triumph for Women
In the single most important triumph for women, California Democrat Nancy Pelosi smashed through the glass ceiling that has kept women out of the upper echelons of political power throughout US history. As leader of the incoming majority party, Pelosi is the next Speaker of the House, the most powerful position in the legislative branch of government and second in the line of succession in the case of a presidential death. She will formally assume the post when the 110th Congress convenes in January.
In addition to Pelosi's pending coronation, Democratic women are poised to take key leadership positions in the House and Senate and are in line to chair a record number of congressional committees and subcommittees. In these positions, women will wield enormous power because they will be able to determine the shape of legislation that comes before their committees.
This is where 2006 stands out from previous election years. In the so-called "Year of the Woman," in 1992, women picked up a record number of seats in Congress but were shut out from most high-ranking leadership positions and had not acquired enough seniority to wield much power on congressional committees—the fulcrum of the legislative process. In the years since, women—especially Democrats—rose in seniority on committees and in party leadership, putting many in positions of power when the Democrats retook control of Congress on November 7.
"Was this the new 'Year of the Woman?'" asked Martha Burk, former chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations, at a post-election press conference in Washington, DC. "Our answer is 'Yes,'" she crowed. "It is the new 'Year of the Woman,' because it is now normal for women to take leadership along with men. Every election year from now on will be the 'Year of the Woman.'"
In addition to reaching new heights of political influence, women also added to their ranks this year. The number of women in the Senate grew by two, from 14 to 16—or 16 percent of the chamber—and the number of women in the House rose from 67 to 71, and, depending on the outcome of one still undecided race, could jump by one more seat this year, which would make women an unprecedented 17 percent of the House. Another defeated challenger is taking legal action to challenge the result of her race in Florida.
Although women's performance doesn't match 1992, it beats every other election year in history. In 1992, women picked up 19 House seats and three Senate seats, putting 47 women in the House and seven women in the Senate. In the following election year—the so-called Republican Revolution of 1994—women picked up only one seat in the House and two in the Senate. In the years since, women have made incremental gains, with a high of seven in 2004. Prior to 1992, women made much slower progress. They made history in 1916, when the first woman entered the House; but there were only 32 women in Congress in 1990, 84 years later.
And yet women's advances are still moving at a turtle's pace, said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation in Arlington, Virginia. Women now hold a record number of seats, but so far this year they have advanced their numbers only by about 1 percent this—from 15 to 16 percent (although women could get to 17 percent if they win some as-yet undecided races). "At that rate, it will take two generations" to reach the 20-percent "critical mass" benchmark that political experts say is necessary for women to push their own agenda in Congress, she said, adding: "That is not satisfactory."
But if women didn't make unprecedented strides in quantity, they did in quality.
It's Pelosi Time
A California Democrat who is a solid supporter of women's rights, Nancy Pelosi will be the first woman to become Speaker of the House in history. As Speaker, Pelosi will be responsible for blocking out the congressional calendar, a power that will give her the key ability to set the chamber's legislative agenda.
House Speakers also have at their disposal a number of powers they can use as leverage to build coalitions for their pet causes. For example, they can assign bills to committees and appoint 9 of the 13 members of the powerful Rules Committee, which sets the parameters of floor debate and determines which amendments will get a floor vote. And they have the ability to dole out committee assignments, which can make or break a lawmaker's career. (A lawmaker, for example, who wins a seat on the Appropriations Committee, which is responsible for spending taxpayer money, usually has an easier time securing federal funding for at-home projects and can tout those accomplishments at election time. Getting assigned to a low-profile committee, meanwhile, can make it tough for lawmakers to convince voters of their influence.)
Women now hold a record number of seats in Congress, but so far this year they have only advanced their numbers by about 1 percent—from 15 or 16 percent. "At that rate," said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, "it will take two generations" to reach the 20-percent "critical mass" benchmark that political experts say is necessary for women to push their own agenda in Congress. Smeal added: "That is not satisfactory."
"In many ways a woman Speaker will be more important" than a female president, said Harriett Woods, a lecturer and author who served as Missouri's lieutenant governor from 1985 to 1989 and directed the National Women's Political Caucus, a group in Washington, DC, that backs pro-choice female candidates. "Just think of Newt Gingrich," she said, referring to the Georgia Republican who became Speaker in 1995 after the GOP wrested control of Congress from the Democratic Party.
Indeed, Pelosi has already demonstrated her power as it applies to the ongoing conflict in Iraq—a war opposed by many female voters and activists. On November 8, the day after Republicans took an electoral "thumping," in the words of President Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld resigned—a move Pelosi had called for years earlier. In the first 100 hours of her tenure, Pelosi plans to pass legislation to "transform failed Bush Administration policies in Iraq" by phasing in redeployment of troops and doubling the size of special forces to destroy Osama bin Laden and terrorist networks like Al Qaeda.
Pelosi also maintains continued opposition to efforts by the Bush administration to partially privatize Social Security—an effort that will aid women because they rely on the federal entitlement program more than men. That's because women tend to live longer than men but earn less over their lifetimes. Women are also more likely to take time out of their careers to care for children or elderly relatives and tend to have less access to private pension accounts. Finally, women tend to be paid less than men for equal work, and so benefit more from government subsidies. Women of color are especially dependent on Social Security because they tend to earn less than men and white women. African American women are also less likely to have health insurance, are more likely to be single, and are more likely to take care of young children upon retirement.
Near the top of Pelosi's "to-do" list is a bill that will increase the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour, which Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, said will have a "dramatic impact on the quality of life for women and families." Women, Gandy said, are more likely than men to work at minimum wage and are also more likely to hold multiple jobs, and will therefore benefit disproportionately from an increase in hourly income. "It's not enough," Gandy said at the news conference in Washington, DC, "but it will have a dramatic impact on women and families."
Pelosi also plans to hold a vote early in her tenure on legislation that would allow the government to negotiate directly with pharmaceutical companies for lower drug prices for Medicare patients. That is critical for women, Gandy said, because they are more likely than men to be among the elderly poor and less likely to be able to afford costly prescription drugs.
Possible Legislative Speed Bumps
Enacting these measures is no guarantee, even in a Congress controlled by Democrats. In the House, Pelosi must balance her more liberal instincts with those of the conservative Democrats, who, thanks to a surge in this year's elections, now command about a fifth of the House Democratic caucus. In the Senate, meanwhile, incoming Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada must muscle his party's agenda through a narrowly divided chamber, where a single senator can stop up debate for any reason whatsoever. But that's the easy part, at least compared to winning the support of a conservative president who has not been known to compromise with the opposition. Bush, in other words, will likely break out his veto pen much more often than he did when Congress was controlled by conservative Republicans.
Gandy conceded as much at the press conference. "The initial legislative plans from the new leaders do bode well for women, if they are not blocked by Bush allies still stung by the voters' repudiation of their agenda," she said. Still, giddy with victory, Gandy couldn't help but throw out a few other items on her wish list now that she's got a confidante in the Speaker's office and a more friendly political party in charge.One of her biggest concerns is the lack of pay parity between men and women, and Gandy cited pending legislation that would help resolve that. More than 40 years after the passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which made it illegal for employers to pay men and women unequal wages if they hold the same job, women's wages still lag behind their male counterparts' wages, according to the National Women's Law Center. Women make only 76 cents for every dollar; at the time the Equal Pay Act was signed, women earned only 58 cents for every dollar men earned, according to the Center.
Another priority is a measure called "The Balancing Act," sponsored by Rep. Lynn Woolsey, a California Democrat who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which would help both women and men better manage the demands of work and family life by providing greater access to family and medical leave from work, expanding child care options, increasing funding for after-school programs, and encouraging family-friendly workplaces.
Women's rights groups also hope to pass legislation that includes gender, sexual orientation, and disability in existing hate crimes legislation. The Amish school shootings, Gandy said, "showed us vividly that women and girls can be segregated and targeted because of their gender." Those shootings, she said, would have been considered hate crimes under federal law if the victims had been targeted for their race or religion.
At a minimum, women's rights activists are simply relieved that they are no longer on the legislative defensive. In power for a dozen years, Republicans, for example, passed a series of restrictions on reproductive rights, such as a ban on a procedure known by its opponents as "partial-birth" abortion, and a bill that would make it a crime to transport pregnant minors across state lines to circumvent parental notification laws. "One of the best things is we won't have all this negative legislation," Smeal said. "I have to say, that's big. So much time was taken up with these horrible" bills pushed by social conservatives, she said. "So at least that stops."
Women in Power Positions
When it comes to their proactive agenda, women's rights activists can bank on the fact that they will have receptive ears in the office of the new Speaker, a committed feminist. But they will also find new allies in key committee and subcommittee offices, where women will hold the panel gavels for the first time in history.
In the most significant development, New York Rep. Louise Slaughter is poised to become the new chair of House Rules. "It's one of those murky, insider-Washington things," Gandy said. "But the Rules Committee is where so much of our legislation has been tied up—and screwed up—for years now. To have Louise Slaughter in Rules is going to make a huge difference." Also, Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald of California is in line to chair the House Administration Committee, which oversees federal elections and day-to-day operations in the chamber. And New York Rep. Nydia Velazquez will chair the Small Business Committee, a panel of special significance to women because they are becoming independent entrepreneurs in disproportionate numbers. Between 1997 and 2002, the number of female business owners jumped 20 percent, according to a 2006 study conducted by the Small Business Administration. Rep. Jane Harman of California, meanwhile, is next in line to take over control of the House Intelligence Committee, which oversees the intelligence community, a key position in the post-9/11 security environment. But she is not expected to assume the position because of a reportedly sour relationship with Pelosi.
House women will also serve as chairs of two major Democratic Party caucuses. Barbara Lee and Lynn Woolsey of California—are the new chairs of the Progressive Caucus, the largest partisan caucus in the House. Rep. Ellen Tauscher of California, meanwhile, currently co-chairs the New Democrat Coalition, a growing group of centrists. On the Senate side of the Capitol, there will be two new female committee chairs, both from California: Barbara Boxer will head the Committee on the Environment and Public Works, and Dianne Feinstein will chair her chamber's Rules Committee. "To have women who are feminists and supporters of women's rights chairing the Rules Committees in both houses of Congress will really be a sea change," Gandy said. "There are no guarantees, but we're no longer guaranteed to have everything blocked."
Two new female committee chairs does not, however, represent a significant achievement for women in the Senate. In the 109th Congress, two Republican women chaired committees, but they have to give up their gavels because their party is out of power. These women are Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, who preside over the Small Business and Homeland Security panels. Women did not make significant headway in Democratic leadership either. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington was named Secretary of the Democratic Conference, the fourth ranking position. She will replace Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, who left the post, which helps shape the party's agenda, and now chairs the party's steering committee, which had been held by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. The Steering Committee chair is responsible for building support for Democratic policy positions.
On the Republican side, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas was elected Republican Policy Committee chairwoman and will oversee and coordinate the party's policy positions. In the House, Pelosi was the only woman from either party elected to innermost-circle of party leadership.
Historic Gains Made
While 2006 outpaced 1992 in qualitative terms, with more women holding more power than ever, it did not match 1992 in quantity. The unprecedented gains of 1992 were due to a combination of factors that aren't present today, the main one being an unusually high number of open seats, the best opportunities for female political aspirants to enter Congress. In addition, House districts are less competitive now than they were in 1992, thanks to a 2001 redistricting process that strengthened most incumbents, most of whom are male. And although there are several scandals on Capitol Hill this year, none has engaged the female electorate in the same way that the sexual harassment investigation into Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas did in 1992.
Still, women made historic gains this year.
The Senate will see two new female faces. Democrat Amy Klobuchar, a county prosecutor, turned what was expected to be close contest in the independent-minded swing state of Minnesota into a rout on Election Day. She trounced her Republican opponent, Rep. Mark Kennedy, by 20 points, and won 58 to 38 percent. Democrat Claire McCaskill, meanwhile, scratched out a victory after running an uphill battle against freshman Republican Sen. Jim Talent. She ousted Talent with 50 percent of the vote and, in so doing, helped hand Democrats control of the Senate.
No incumbent female senators retired or resigned their seats this year, and the six who stood for reelection won easily. Those were Democrats Stabenow, Feinstein, Clinton, and Maria Cantwell of Washington state, and Republicans Snowe and Hutchison. Other female senators are Republicans Collins, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina and Democrats Lincoln, Boxer, Murray, Barbara Mikulsky of Maryland, and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.
In the House, women also made significant advances, picking up at least 10 and possibly 11 seats, depending on the outcome of a runoff election in Luisiana. There, Democrat Karen Carter was one of the top two vote-getters in an Election Day-primary race; she will face Democratic Rep. William Jefferson in a Decmber runoff. Women are also hanging on to the slim hope that Democrat Christine Jennings, who lost to Republican Vern Buchanan by a narrow margin, will prevail in a lawsuit challenging the elction results.
The vast majority of this year's victors hailed from the Democratic Party, with eight Democratic challengers winning House seats and two Republican challengers prevailing. Among the Democratic victors were three women who pulled off stunning upsets against entrenched Republican incumbents. They were Nancy Boyda of Kansas, who ousted Rep. Jim Ryun; Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who unseated Rep. John Sweeney; and Carol Shea-Porter, a former social worker who came from behind to beat Rep. Jeb Bradley in New Hampshire. Four other women won open-seat races: Kathy Castor of Florida, Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, and Betty Sutton of Ohio. Meanwhile, all female Democratic incumbents in the House who were on the November ballot won. Only one—Cynthia McKinney of Georgia—was not able to stand for reelection. McKinney was defeated in her state's primary race after a highly publicized run-in with the Capitol Police.
Republican women had a much tougher time on Election Day, with only two challengers winning and at least four incumbents losing. The victors were Michele Bachmann, who defeated child safety advocate Patty Wetterling, a Minnesota Democrat who became nationally known after her son was abducted in 1989, and Mary Fallin, who claimed an easy victory against Democrat David Hunter in an open-seat race in Oklahoma.
But GOP women suffered a devastating loss early on election night, when the most senior woman in the House, 12-term Rep. Nancy Johnson of Connecticut, lost her race to state Sen. Chris Murphy. A centrist, Johnson lost to Murphy by 12 points. At least three other Republican women—and possibly more depending on the outcome of two outstanding races involving incumbent GOP women—also lost their seats on November 7. Those were Sue Kelly, a moderate from New York's 19th district (representing portions of Dutchess, Orange, Westchester, Rockland, and Putnam counties), who lost a come-from-behind challenge by John Hall, a musician and environmental activist who in 2004 publicly asked President Bush to stop playing his song, "Still the One," at his reelection campaign rallies. Hall beat Kelly with 51 percent of the vote.
Another House veteran, Rep. Anne Northup, lost reelection in a hotly contested race in Kentucky. After surviving Democratic attacks for five terms, Northup finally succumbed to Democratic challenger John Yarmuth, a newspaper columnist who won by a three-percentage point margin. In Pennsylvania, Republican Melissa Hart was one of several casualties to a Democratic onslaught in the state. Hart fell to Democrat Jason Altmire, a former legislative aide in the House of Representatives. Altmire won 52 to 48 percent.
Another serious loss for moderate Republican women could still come if Rep. Deborah Pryce of Ohio—currently the highest ranking woman in the Republican Party—loses her seat to Democratic challenger Mary Jo Kilroy. Pryce, who did not seek reelection to the GOP Conference Chair, is locked in a race that is still too close to call. With an edge of more than 3,000 votes, Pryce appears to have the edge as election workers continue to count ballots. Two other Republican women are also still in jeopardy of losing their seats. One other Republican woman—Rep. Jean Schmidt of Ohio—is still in jeopardy of losing her seat. Election officials are counting the provisional ballots in her race against Democrat Victoria Wulsin.
Achieving more equal representation for women in politics will have an affect beyond simple fairness, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. The center's studies show that women of both parties not only hold more liberal and more feminist attitudes than their male colleagues but also are more likely to prioritize policies that directly affect women and frame issues in ways that take women's unique circumstances into consideration. In addition, women are more likely to work in a bipartisan fashion to advance a collective agenda, studies indicate.
Women were in a position to come closer to "critical mass" had it not been for a number of female losses. Some of the more formidable candidates who fell to male challengers include Darcy Burner of Washington state, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, Lois Murphy of Pennsylvania, Diane Farrell of Connecticut, Angie Paccione of Colorado, Tessa Hafen and Jill Derby of Nevada, Linda Stender of New Jersey, Ellen Simon of Arizona, Judy Feder of Virginia, and Francine Busby of California.
Women Proved Critical at Polls
As voters, women played a critical role in the elections, Susan Carroll, a senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics, said in a post-election statement. She cited figures that showed that women provided the critical margin of victory in Senate races in Virginia, Missouri, and Montana—the three races that gave Democrats control of the Senate. In Virginia, 55 percent of women voted for Democrat Jim Webb, compared to 45 percent of men. In Missouri, 51 percent of women but only 46 percent of men backed McCaskill. And in Montana, 52 percent of women, compared with 48 percent of men, voted for Democrat Jon Tester.
"Generally, the size of the gender gap in midterm election is only three points, this time it was five points," Smeal said. "And we saw a number of the races where a very, very large gender gap made the difference."
Women also saw victories at the state level, with Alaska Republican Sarah Palin becoming her state's first female governor, and a number of women winning second-tier statewide offices such as secretary of state, state treasurer and lieutenant governor.
But the biggest surprises involved the state ballot initiatives that affect women—most significantly the victory of an initiative to repeal the South Dakota abortion ban. That outcome nullifies a law that would have banned all abortions except those threatening a woman's life. The ban was supposed to take effect in July. But activists gathered enough signatures to put the law on November's referendum ballot, a move that prevented the law from taking immediate effect. Voters rejected the law, which would have criminalized abortions for victims of rape or incest, by a decisive vote of 56 to 44 percent.
Voters also rejected a pair of initiatives in California and Oregon that represented the latest efforts of the incrementalist wing of the anti-choice movement, which seeks to chip away at abortion rights rather than push an outright ban, as the South Dakota law would do. The measures would have required physicians to give a pregnant minor's parents written notice before performing an abortion. Proponents of the initiatives said such laws are the kind of modest restrictions favored by the majority of the electorate and note that more than 30 states have passed similar laws. But opponents said the measures might put teens in vulnerable positions because it might force some to confront potentially abusive parents with news of their pregnancies. Voters sided with the opponents of the initiative, rejecting it in both states by a vote of 54 to 46 percent.
Women will also benefit from a series of initiatives passed by voters that will raise the minimum wage, women's rights activists said. Women are more likely than men to live in low-wage jobs, and will get a bigger share of the boost when the minimum wage is raised in the six states that passed ballot initiatives to do so. They are Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, and Ohio. A loss for women's rights activists came in Michigan, where voters supported an anti-affirmative action ballot initiative by 58 to 42 percent. The initiative bans the use of gender- and race-based affirmative action in public institutions.
But women's rights activists looked past the few losses and celebrated what was clearly a good year for women. "1992 was the 'Year of the Woman,' but 2006 is the beginning of the new women's political movement," said Marie Wilson, president of The White House Project, an organization dedicated to electing women to all levels of office, including the presidency. "There's greater acceptance of women as leaders in politics than ever before, and I think that this could be a predictor of gains to come for women on the road to the White House in 2008."