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2012: Year of the Woman? | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

2012: Year of the Woman?

The Komen turnaround and the White House’s “miraculous” accommodation on contraception both had the feel of movement victories for women—proof that the Republicans’ War on Women has sparked a potent outrage with political muscle.

On the heels of the Komen win, President Obama announced that insurance companies would have to pay for contraception coverage when a religious employer objects to providing it. As Nation columnist Katha Pollitt writes, it’s as if the administration “finally noticed that women out-number bishops.”

But as my inimitable colleague Pollitt also observes, “Women’s health is never just about women’s health, the well-being of the 52 percent of the population that spends around thirty years trying not to get pregnant.”

Almost on cue, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell announced that the GOP will pursue legislation permitting any employer to deny contraception in their health insurance plans. He said, “The fact that the White House thinks this is about contraception is the whole problem. This is about freedom of religion.”

Thank goodness Mitch is there to let women know when we are mistaking religious freedom for contraception.

And so the War on Women led by Republican men continues to rage. According to the Huffington Post, Republican Senator Roy Blunt is even using a transportation bill to try to amend the Affordable Care Act so that any employer can exclude any aspect of health coverage “by claiming that it violates their religious or moral convictions.” There might be a vote as soon as tomorrow.

In response to this ratcheting up of extremist attacks, women’s health advocates and activists will rely on the same kind of vigilance and activism that countered Komen and also defeated Mississippi’s Fetal Personhood Amendment this fall.

But women need something else too if pro-choicers are to move from defensive victories to making long-term progress on women’s health: the election of more pro-choice legislators in Congress who will have their backs. According to NARAL, staunch anti-choicers outnumber pro-choicers 46-40 in the Senate, and 246-155 in the House. In many state legislatures the picture is similarly bleak.

And yet there are some positive electoral signs that Republican overreach will backfire, making the 2012 elections the kind of historic year for women that we haven’t seen since 1992—known as the Year of the Woman—when four women were elected to the Senate. In fact, EMILY’s List—dedicated to electing pro-choice Democratic women—is calling the upcoming election “W.H.Y. (Women’s Historic Year) 2012.”

In the 12 months since the Republicans took control of the House, EMILY’s List membership has grown from under 400,000 to over 1 million. In 2011—an off year in the election cycle—it added 640,000 new men and women members. (Typically, that number is around 50,000.)

“Lots of this enthusiasm has to do with fighting back against the GOP War on Women; and I think women rightly see the birth control fight as just the next front in that,” says EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock.

EMILY’s List is now supporting a record eleven Senate candidates, including six incumbents and five challengers. Each challenger—Mazie Hirono, Tammy Baldwin, Shelley Berkley, Susan Bysiewicz and Elizabeth Warren—would be the first woman to represent her state in the Senate.

In the House, where Democrats need to pickup twenty-five seats to regain a majority, EMILY’s List is supporting nineteen candidates and closely watching more than twenty other races. Eight of the endorsed candidates are facing Tea Party incumbents who took Koch Brothers cash.

Until we win comprehensive campaign finance reform—something all of these Senate candidates are on record as supporting—cash remains all too important. In the 2009–10 cycle, EMILY’s List raised more than $38.5 million. That amount is sure to be surpassed this year given the growth in membership. Schriock says the organization has “never raised as much for candidates at this point in the cycle” and is “on track to raise more money than ever before.”

It also seems that support for Democratic women candidates is attributable to more than choice and health issues. A poll conducted by EMILY’s List on January 31 shows that the issues women consider priorities are the economy, tax fairness, Social Security and Medicare.

“The Republicans’ clear focus on a right-wing social agenda just proves they’re asleep at the switch,” says Schriock. “They’re not just getting their priority issue wrong, they’ve prioritized the wrong issues altogether.”

If the same kind of grassroots energy and activism of recent weeks is sustained in the upcoming election, this indeed might prove to be a Year of the Woman. That would not only strengthen the firewall against a well-funded and relentless Republican War on Women but also serve as something to build on—helping women make real progress in our fight to control decisions about our health.

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