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.
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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?
The party’s reluctance to capitalize on its feminist successes makes it look scared and, well, weak. It has also allowed Sarah Palin and her brood of appallingly conservative female candidates to step into the void, attempting to rebrand their female-unfriendly ideology as the estrogen-driven arbiter of gender equality. Of course, that’s strategic too. As Schriock notes, the current Republican vogue for the language but not the mechanisms of women’s empowerment "is a political tactic to decrease the gender gap [to benefit Republicans]…and there’s no policy behind it that [benefits] American women."
Fair enough. But Palin’s explosive success in attracting an impassioned female following offers evidence that some entrenched attitudes about women and power are beginning to shift in ways that Democrats would be wise to pay attention to. As false as Palin’s claims to feminism ring, we can’t forget that they are coming just two years after 18 million Democrats voted for a woman with a real-life commitment to socially progressive policy and an actual stake in the feminist legacy. It should be increasingly clear that an appetite for dynamic female leadership, perhaps long suppressed, has been whetted, and that either party might benefit by rising to satisfy it.
Yet in this election cycle, we see no Democratic equivalent to the Mama Grizzlies, no energetic retort to Republicans’ anemic claims that they are the party of women. Why are Democrats reluctant to take this moment to assert their association with the legacy of women’s liberation as a point of pride? Why has there been no attempt to promote national stars or to capitalize on the argument that empowering gifted women—especially those whose policy aims actually benefit other women—is a noble, progressive goal to which we should all proudly commit ourselves?
"They come to you every four years and say, We need your vote, but never ask for voices and visions," says Wilson. "If you don’t give people opportunity and power within a system, they don’t stick with you…. It’s time for the party to stop just asking us to vote and say, We want you at the table of power."
Indeed, the argument that not enough women put themselves forward to run for office is growing increasingly feeble. The year after Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, enrollment in the White House Project’s leadership training programs mushroomed, Wilson says, noting that she recently returned from training 100 women, a third of them Native American, in Minnesota’s north country. Two hundred and ninety-eight women from both parties filed to run for either the House or Senate during this cycle, an all-time high.
"I’ve traveled all over the country for the past two years, and everyone knows this is the time," says Wilson. "It’s also a time when the Democrats could call on their women’s base, go out there and recruit like mad on its women’s base. Healthcare and education are at the top of the nation’s agenda now. Women are the ones out there creating jobs, pioneering micro-enterprise, doing small businesses." Referring to Democrats as "a party full of Grizzlies all over the country," Wilson urges, "You really want to get the party moving again? Be the party that declares they are going for parity in political leadership in our country. That would be such a message."
Democratic leaders must recognize that the nation’s views on women and power are changing. They might also consider it a moral and social imperative for the party that relies on women, and to which women’s progress has been historically tied, to treat its women as a fundamental asset rather than a vaguely irritating embarrassment.
"We need to be louder about how we’re the party that’s supported and empowered women in this country," says Schriock, adding that of late, "there is more conversation and dialogue about feminism and women’s empowerment." The opportunity to capitalize on the re-emerging engagement with gender issues, she concedes, might be one "that Sarah Palin has allowed us to take, because we’ve got truth on our side." Among the truths Schriock says she and her organization will set about publicizing as soon as the midterms are over are that "we are the party that kept women from being a pre-existing condition in healthcare, who fought for Lilly Ledbetter."
Democrats must hammer home their woman-friendly bona fides, and they must also be fundamentally more woman-friendly. They must reaffirm a commitment to reproductive rights as a cardinal component of a progressive mission—not simply a pesky single issue but crucial to the social, economic and political equality of half the population. They must seek out the future female faces of the party. Yes, recruit more women, but take advantage of the ones already in office, the Amy Klobuchars and Debbie Wasserman-Schultzes. Give them the spotlit berths and career-making speeches. And the next time there is a female Democratic candidate for president (which, nota bene, might not be so far in the future), for God’s sake, take time to celebrate—or at least note—the remarkable historical strides she’s made.
If Democrats are to stay relevant and persuasively assert themselves as the party of progressive America, they must man up by admitting—and more than that, proudly promising—that their future will rest in part in the hands of women.