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Editor’s Note: To mark Women’s History Month, Women’s Enews asked a handful–from a pages-long list–of leaders of the second wave of the U.S. women’s movement that swept the nation three decades ago to look back on their work and answer three questions: What were they fighting for? What did they accomplish? And what remains to be done? Five remarkable women responded. Today, U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from California, reflects on the importance of women being engaged in electoral politics and outlines significant issues now on the congressional agenda.

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–It wasn’t until college that I understood the importance of being involved and engaged in our political system. Until then, I had been involved in many community activities, but, like many in my generation, I felt as though I had no stake in politics and that the voices of women and minorities were not being heard–that participation in the system was severely limited.

That all changed while I was a student at Mills College in Oakland, Calif. In 1972, U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm from New York, the first African-American woman elected to Congress, visited the college to talk about the importance of engaging in our political system. She encouraged me to register to vote and to get involved in politics.

Shirley Chisholm was a committed advocate for progressive causes, many of which were directly connected to improving the lives of women, including improving education, ending discrimination, increasing the availability of childcare and expanding the coverage of the federal minimum-wage laws to include domestic employment.

Also, in 1972, she also became the first woman to run for president and I, persuaded by her commitment and ideals, ended up working in her presidential campaign.

This was the beginning of my political involvement. Subsequently, I worked as an intern and then staff member for Congressman Ron Dellums, who held the congressional seat I hold today. We approached our work on Capitol Hill as activists, fighting for social, political and economic justice and working to make sure that our laws addressed injustices. I continued with the same determination when I was elected to the California State Legislature in 1990, and I still approach my work in that manner.

Women Lawmakers Would Provide New Approaches to Welfare Policy

We have witnessed many victories in the fight for equality and social justice. There are an unprecedented number of women in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, and more women than ever are being elected to state and local offices. Funding for women’s health has steadily increased. Women now have more legal protections against sexual and other types of harassment, and, in general, issues affecting women are debated more than ever by our nation’s leaders. However, much unfinished business remains.

For example, this year we have the opportunity to right the wrongs of welfare reform and the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program when it comes before Congress for reauthorization. Many current and former welfare recipients who remain in poverty–most of whom are women–know all too well that reform has been a failure.

As welfare reauthorization is debated this year, we must take into account why the 1996 welfare “reform” failed to lift families out of poverty. Despite the reduction in the number of families receiving welfare benefits, many continue to struggle both on and off welfare to earn a livable wage, meet high housing costs, find adequate health care, job training, child-care services and affordable transportation.

Moving families off of welfare and into decent-paying jobs should be a goal that we all share, but cutting social programs and leaving low-paying employment as the only substitute is not the solution. We must reform the system to provide real opportunities for economic independence.

The 1996 welfare-reform law also established new programs for abstinence-only-until-marriage education. To receive federal funds, states are prohibited from discussing contraceptives unless they are portrayed as ineffective. Almost every state has agreed to this condition.

Since 1996, Congress has committed over half a billion dollars, through both federal and state matching funds, to abstinence-only education programs–and not one penny to comprehensive sexuality education. Congress continues to fund abstinence-only programs despite research that shows that programs teaching abstinence and contraception are more effective than abstinence-only programs in helping teens to delay sexual activity.

Comprehensive Sex Education Must Be A Priority

It is time for a more balanced approach. Allowing our young people to remain uninformed as we face the HIV/AIDS pandemic is irresponsible. Two young people in the United States are infected with HIV every hour of every day. Denying our sons and daughters the information they need to protect their health and save their lives is not only naive and misguided, but extremely dangerous and wrong.

That is why I have introduced the Family Life and Education Act, which will provide funding to allow states to implement a comprehensive approach to sexuality education in public schools that includes information about both abstinence and contraception, from both a values and public health perspective.

This year Congress will address many issues that affect women and we must continue to be engaged in the political process and active in our communities. We must also transcend the traditional boundaries of what constitutes “women’s issues,” because all of the issues facing our nation affect women. We must remain committed to protecting a woman’s right to choose, to fighting for equal pay, to providing affordable housing, adequate health care and child care, to protecting Social Security and Medicare, to safeguarding the environment, to improving public education and to finding progressive solutions to our international issues.

As we move into the future, women have unique perspectives on ways to address problems we all face. We must be at the table. We must demand to be heard.

U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat, has represented California’s Ninth District since 1998.

For more information:

Office of Congresswoman Barbara Lee:

National Women’s Hall of Fame
Shirley Chisholm:

The White House Project: