Women Leaders Vow Shift in U.S. Agenda

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BALTIMORE–The auditorium the size of several football fields was hushed, the six thousand feminists rapt, as television stars Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless spelled out the day’s agenda. All had come together March 30 through April 2 for the second-ever Feminist Expo–organized by the Feminist Majority and cosponsored by 575 other women’s organizations.

The hall was filled with more than 140 delegations from 65 countries and 560 speakers and 250 exhibits–all of which echoed the weekend’s theme one way or another–that women had too little political clout and too few financial resources and now is the time for change.

Gless and Daly–costars of a feminist-favorite television series Cagney & Lacey–reminded the crowd that only 12 percent of Congress is female and women are 62 percent of the nation’s poor.

They emphasized the movement’s goals were now to incorporate its values regarding families and children, the environment and the economy, and civil rights and human rights, national and global, into the infrastructure of America’s public policies.

“We want a more fair, more just, more clean and a safer place to live,” Daly told the cheering crowd.

These themes were echoed throughout the three days, in the crowded general assemblies, the small seminars and hallway conversations.

Political Power

“We are in search of getting political representation for women in this country. We cannot accept 10 percent to 11 percent,” said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation. She added that she was not content with gaining one or two seats in Congress each election.

“We want women’s issues in the election debates,” she said. “We want a cabinet that looks like America.”

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, joked, “When I was running for Senate I used to say ‘2 percent may be good for milk, but not for women’s representation.’ We are now 9 percent of the Senate, closer to the fat content of yogurt, and still not enough.” She predicted two women’s issues would determine the outcome of elections: abortion rights and gun control.

Feinstein also warned the audience that the next president could appoint up to three Supreme Court Justices, and “those justices will decide the future of Roe v. Wade.”

“We have not yet broken the electoral glass ceiling,” said Carol Moseley Braun, the first African-American woman elected to Congress and now the ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa. “As a former politician I can tell you, that my break came when some women made it popular for all women to vote for women candidates.”

And Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich, executive director of the Black Leadership Forum, emphasized that white women and white men gave Bill Clinton about 45 percent of their votes. Women of color cast 96 percent of their votes for Clinton, she said, providing him with the election victory.

Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, referred to what she called the Youth Quake–the largest generation in history.

Speaking directly to the college age women, Feldt said: “The reproductive decisions you will make will have a profound impact on the health of the planet and the next generation,” she said, adding that all women had the right to control their reproductive lives.

The speakers from around the globe, from Afghanistan to Iran, from South African to Costa Rica, from Ghana to South Africa, urged American feminists to pressure the Sen. Jesse Helms, Republican from North Carolina, to end his opposition to the approval of the United Nations Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The United States is one of only a handful of nations that has not signed the treaty, they said.

Many of the day’s speakers advocated for the election ballot to be flooded with names of women of all ages.

“When one woman runs she is hair and hemlines and husband,” said Marie Wilson, president of the White House Project. “When two women run, it’s a catfight. When three women run, we get to at least hear about their agendas. When four women run, we get to elect our own agenda,” she said.

Talk in one seminar turned to the need for college-age women to run for political office.

Panelist Dee Martin, a law student at the University of Virginia, asked the audience members to raise their hands if they had taken out a federally funded student loan for college. She then described her fund-raising proposal– federally funded loans for political campaigns. “The next time I talk with all of you, I want to see the same hands up that all of you took loans to run for office.”

Many of the younger attendees decided not to wait that long and formed their own ad hoc committee.

Despite the switch to Daylight Savings Time, more than 65 high school and college students met at 8 a.m. Sunday to discuss the generational divide in the women’s movement.

Part of the program was dedicated to even younger feminists.

At a panel on raising feminist children, Andrea Young, author of “Lessons My Mother Taught Me” and a mother of a female child, encouraged the need to tell young girls stories of women who have made tough choices in an imperfect world. She added that parents of girls need to help them develop “strategies of resistance” in a society that does not yet accept justice and equality for women.

Economic Power

Many speakers challenged Expo attendees to pick up the agenda of breaking the cycle of poverty for women worldwide.

Cecile Richards of the Turner Foundation set the tone. “If we shape these issues in terms of the benefits to society as a whole, women win,” she said.

The good economic times have given many women in this country access to money “so we can use our resources and our power politically, economically, philanthropically and individually to make real change for all women,” said Ronnie Steinberg, a professor of sociology and director of women’s studies at Vanderbilt University.

Today, as investors, women can pressure corporations to be fair employers and practice what they preach, Steinberg said. Women’s political support can elect candidates who will work to achieve a women’s agenda, she added. Individually or collectively, women can make sure that those at the bottom of the economic scale can benefit, she argued.

Lisa Witter, director of the social security project for the National Council of Women’s Organizations, said her organization is actively against the movement for privatizing the program. Instead, her project is advocating benefit increases.

“The privatizers have gotten us so scared and so defensive, that we stopped talking about ways to strengthen the program for women. This is supposed to be an anti-poverty program, so let’s make it work and make it work for women most affected by Social Security,” Witter said.

Or, as Marcia Gillespie, editor-in chief of Ms. Magazine, said: “Until we raise the floor, it doesn’t matter about the glass ceiling.”

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