Funny how even in these days of female CEO candidates and maverick Mama Grizzlies, many Democratic women still relate to Abigail Adams’s 234-year-old wry (and slightly pissy) plea to her husband, John, and his nation-building buddies to "remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors." Some of us find ourselves wondering why our party still shuns a public celebration of its female power and why it still appears hesitant to boost its strong female candidates.
Left-leaning lady trouble is ironic, since by many measures women are the Democratic Party—or at least 57 percent of it in the 2008 election. Moreover, the party has long been tagged as feminine: focused on purportedly soft concerns like healthcare, reproductive rights, social programs and the economy, as opposed to the more testicular national security obsessions of Republicans. Twenty-five of the thirty-eight female senators in history have been Democrats, and sixty-nine of the ninety Congressional seats currently held by women belong to Democrats. As Stephanie Schriock, head of EMILY’s List, says, "I think the Democratic Party strives to be a party of fairness and equal opportunity; that can be seen in the Democratic structure itself. You have a chair and vice chair, and in every state one has to be a man and one has to be a woman."
The gender quotas, (usually) female-friendly policy priorities and slowly but steadily improving stats are all terrific. So why are we not hearing the party own its commitment to women’s progress by lending full-throated support to its female candidates? Democrats were recently forced to cough up the baleful statistic that only three of thirteen members of Red to Blue, its battleground district support network, are female. At around the same time, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee backed the male candidate, Representative Ed Case, in a special election for a Hawaii House seat, attempting to push his female opponent, Colleen Hanabusa—endorsed by EMILY’s List, labor unions and both of Hawaii’s senators—out of the race. Although gifted Texan orators Barbara Jordan and Ann Richards have given star-making keynote addresses at the party’s national conventions, Democrats have not put a woman on that particular podium since 1992. And in the six cycles since the history-making nomination of Geraldine Ferraro for the vice presidency, in 1984, not one other woman has been named to the top ticket.
A reluctance to advertise the centrality of women within the Democratic Party has been explained away for years as tactical necessity. Labeled the Mommy Party since the gender gap first yawned open (and understanding this not to be a compliment), Democratic leaders have made a series of strategic moves to masculinize—and thus legitimize—their brand, including bargaining away reproductive rights to secure majorities on legislation. It’s a process that has not been exclusive to politics. "In any profession, philanthropy or business or anything that becomes majority women, that [female reputation] gets to be a problem, and men get put in power to compensate," says Marie Wilson, head of the White House Project, which aims to advance women’s leadership.
This aversion to any hint of femininity is likely why we rarely hear about the prowoman legislation Democrats have pushed through. The first bill President Obama signed was the foot-stomping, beret-tossing Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, about which we don’t hear a peep these days, even as the purportedly women-driven Tea Party barks about the ways women have been economically injured by this administration. And while Nancy Pelosi crowed in March about how, thanks to healthcare reform, being a woman no longer counts as a pre-existing medical condition, she was among the few Democrats to whoop it up on this score. And why are so many Congressional Democrats distancing themselves from the first female speaker of the House—arguably one of the most efficient, effective and dynamic ones in recent history—and apparently siding with the GOP attack featuring Pelosi as the Wicked Witch of the West?