Your announcement yesterday that you will not seek the open Senate seat in Maine made my heart sink. My emotional reaction to your well-reasoned decision surprised me. After all, as someone who has operated in the political arena for quite a while now, I’m accustomed to the pragmatic decisions and political calculations that are the bread and butter of incremental progress. Still, there are moments where outrageous circumstances should trump reasonable decision making, and recent events in the world of US women have been outrageous enough to warrant one of those moments.
The reasons for your decision are apparent and undeniable: early polling shows a nearly impossible pathway to victory in a three-way race; former governor and independent candidate Angus King has established himself as the presumed front-runner and your constituencies overlap; absent one of you dropping out, the race will likely be won by the Republican candidate. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee lauded your decision as the right one for the people of Maine and progressive causes, since neither will benefit from adding another Conservative Republican to the Senate. I am quite certain that party operatives and others are lining up to thank you for “taking one for the team.” But, me? I just wonder when it will be someone else’s turn to step aside for our team.
The number of women representing Americans fell in 112th Congress for the first time in thirty years. In the November 2010 elections, women went from ninety-three seats in the House and the Senate to ninety combined, making the overall percentage of women leadership at the federal level just under 17 percent. That numbers qualifies the United States for a spot at seventy-third place in the world for female representation in government leadership. We are tied with Turkmenistan.
Your announcement comes on the heels of a week dominated by Rush Limbaugh’s series of tirades against Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke. Rush has lost close to forty-six advertisers for his rant calling Ms. Fluke a slut for testifying about the need for contraception to be included in healthcare. Yet, the comments from Republican leadership have been milquetoast at best, with majority leader John Boehner seeming to blame both sides equally. Representative Darrell Issa blamed the Democrats for the tone of the contraception debate.
Just before “slut week,” the Senate debated a measure introduced by Missouri Senator Roy Blunt, who believes decisions about contraception coverage should be left to a woman’s employer. In fact, Blunt’s amendment would have allowed employers to withhold payment for other types of health service if the treatment conflicts with their conscience. In the world of the GOP, healthcare should not be between a woman and her doctor but between a woman and her employer, with her employer having final say. The amendment was barely defeated, with three Democrats breaking party to lines to narrow the margin.
This is the same body that in November of 2010 voted against the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would have ensured fair pay for women. According to the US Bureau of Labor 2011 Statistics, women earned almost 18 percent less than men last year for a week of full time work. This wage gap has proven disastrous for women on the economic edge in America. Despite the economy showing marginal signs of improvement, more and more women are living in poverty. According to the 2010 Census, four million more women than men face poverty in the United States. Mothers get special punishment in this economy. 34 percent of families with a single mother as head of household are poor and 17 percent live in deep poverty. The same is only true of 17.3 percent of families headed by a single father, with only 8 percent living in deep poverty.
This disparity isn’t only present at the bottom end of the economic spectrum either. In a culture that places a premium on innovation, male-founded startups receive venture capital funding by a margin of four to one over women-founded startups. Women-led companies are twice as likely to get debt capital versus equity capital, requiring that women shoulder more of the risk on their own. These facts are true in spite of research that shows that gender diversity within senior ranks of organizations translates into financial value, especially where innovation is part of the equation.
The issues outlined above have been marginalized as “women’s issues,” despite the fact that they are issues of family, issues of economic competitiveness and issues of national public health. But as Senator Bernie Sanders tweeted after the Blunt Amendment vote: "If the Senate was 83 women and 17 men instead of the other way around, #BluntAmendment would never have made it to the Senate floor."
I hope you understand, Representative Pingree, I respect your choice. It is you who must bear the burden of running—and potentially losing—on your professional future, on your family life, and on your personal health and psyche. You have earned, and will get, my support no matter what path you choose.
But I could not let your decision become a footnote of history without registering protest. As a champion of all of the issues above and of equality for all Americans, you should not have to step aside in this critical year. Since women’s destinies are inextricably tied to the nation’s destiny, we cannot move into a new era of peace and prosperity without addressing them. Yet, forcing these issues out of the women’s ghetto into the light of priority evidently requires more female leadership, which means that maybe it is someone else’s turn to step aside.