By Alison Bowen
Thursday, August 28, 2008
Women in both chambers of Congress issued political checklists and set their agendas during the Democratic convention. Equal pay is a top concern for female lawmakers but they also promoted party issues with an eye to the election.
DENVER (WOMENSENEWS)--In the hours before Sen. Hillary Clinton addressed the delegates at the Democratic National Convention Tuesday night, 10 female senators joined together to unveil their own agenda before the Democratic delegates. Slightly more than than half the delegates are female.
Topping the list is narrowing the gender wage gap, but other women's issues--such as gender violence and reproductive rights--were absent from the checklist proposal, dominated by staples of the Democratic Party agenda.
As a recording of Aretha Franklin's "Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves" blared over the convention loud speakers, the coalition of Democratic senators rolled out their "Checklist for Change," their political agenda for the 111th Congress that will convene in January with new members elected in the November election.
Eight women in the House of Representatives, introduced by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, presented their own checklist Wednesday before the convention delegates. Two highlighted issues--making college more affordable and alleviating the housing mortgage crisis--were different from the senators' version. But other issues mirrored the senators' list including equal pay, improving national security, fostering energy independence and creating affordable health care.
Throughout the convention in Denver this week, female lawmakers have sought out the spotlight, drawing attention to their issues at women-themed events partly intended to raise their profile as an influential group in Washington politics.
That has included a show of support for traditional Democratic Party issues and an emphasis on the presidential election.
Unveiling their checklist, the House representatives read aloud letters from women worrying about feeding their children or paying mortgages and medical bills. Each said Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, would represent "more of the same."
"Everything is on the line for women in this election," California Rep. Lois Capps said.
"You would think in 2008 that would be a no-brainer," Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow said about the equal pay issue Tuesday morning at a breakfast rally for the Democratic Women's Caucus, a group of Democratic women in Congress that works together on common issues.
Equal pay for equal work is still not a reality, Stabenow said, and criticized the Supreme Court for making it tougher for women to file pay discrimination lawsuits.
At issue was the case of Lilly Ledbetter, a former employee at a Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company plant in Alabama who sued for pay discrimination. Led by Chief Justice John Roberts, the high court ruled against Ledbetter in 2007 because she didn't file her complaint within six-months after the discrimination occurred--even though Ledbetter would have no way of knowing at that time that she was being paid less than her male co-workers. .
Ledbetter has since become an advocate for equal pay and addressed the convention in a prime-time speech Tuesday nigh, because, she said, although she will never be able to recover damages from her former employer.
"We can't afford more of the same votes that deny women their equal rights," she said at the convention.
The checklist is a product of Democratic Women for Change, the senators' group headed by Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who is the most senior woman in the Senate. All Democratic female senators have endorsed the checklist.
"Women are pretty good at lists and writing things down and checking them off and getting things done," Stabenow said.
The only issue directly affecting women is the demand for fair pay. The other issues, Stabenow said, affect women because they affect families.
"We decided to bring everyone together to focus on what we know is the core, in our gut, in our heart, which are the issues affecting our families, the future of the country," Stabenow said.
Mikulski introduced the Checklist for Change on the convention floor, taking turns with Stabenow and Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein of California, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray of Washington state, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas.
Also on their agenda are initiatives to expand the economy by discouraging companies from shipping jobs overseas; helping small businesses provide health care for employees; providing better medical care--including mental health care--for military families and veterans; and improving the nation's reputation abroad.
Families are financially squeezed because good-paying jobs are being outsourced to other countries, said Stabenow, whose home state of Michigan is suffering from high rates of unemployment. "This November, we cannot afford more of the same," Stabenow said. "Let's elect Barack Obama and get America working again."
Further down the list are efforts to combat global climate change; increase federal spending on alternative fuels to reduce independence on foreign countries for oil; overhaul federal agencies that respond to natural disasters; stiffen federal oversight of congressional spending and creating tax cuts for middle-income families.
The list comes as key female politicians were encouraging delegates to look beyond the presidential race and toward the make-up of the next Congress.
"Don't think that our work is over if we elect Obama," California Rep. Maxine Waters said at an afternoon tea in Denver Monday hosted by the Arlington, Va.-based Feminist Majority Foundation. "We have got to stay on point."
There are currently 88 women in Congress, representing about 16 percent of the 535 members of the House and Senate.
Women are expected to make considerable gains this year, according to Maren Hesla, director of a voter mobilization program at EMILY's List, a political action committee aimed at electing pro-choice women to political office. She said as many as a dozen Democratic women could win congressional seats this election.
That could help women pass key pieces of their agenda, as well as other bills aimed at improving the lives of women in particular.
Democrats enjoy a 31-seat majority in the House, enabling them to pass legislation of interest to women such as bills that would enable federal employees to take paid time off to care for family members and one that would make it easier to sue for pay discrimination.
But those bills have hit snags in the Senate, where Democrats hold 49 seats and fall short of the 60 votes needed to break GOP filibusters. Senate Republicans, for example, have blocked the paid leave and pay discrimination bills. The Lilly Ledbetter bill was approved by the House in July 2007, but has been stalled in the Senate.
"There's a long list of needs that have been waiting for attention from a Congress supportive of women's rights," Kim Gandy, president of the Washington-based National Organization for Women, said Monday at the Feminist Majority Foundation tea party.
In an appeal for unity in the Democratic Party, speakers at the Democratic Women's Caucus meeting during the convention urged ardent Clinton supporters to get behind Obama's campaign.
Black Entertainment Television founder Sheila Johnson warned tambourine-shaking women that Obama's presidency would depend on whether women work hard enough to elect him.
"When all is said and done, we may not get the president we want, but we will get the president we deserve," Johnson said.
Other issues of concern to women that did not make it on to the 10-point list include more funding for reducing violence against women and ratification the international treaty called the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would guarantee equality under the law regardless of sex.
--Allison Stevens contributed to this report.
Alison Bowen is a New York City-based reporter covering the presidential campaign for Women's eNews. Her work also appears in the New York Daily News. Allison Stevens is Washington Bureau Chief of Women's eNews.
Senators' Checklist for Change
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