Rep. Dale Kildee

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Anti-choice Democratic Rep. Dale Kildee hopes to become the first man to join the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues since 1995.

Asserting that women’s issues are everyone’s issues, Kildee, a House member from Flint, Mich., approached a co-chair of the all-female and largely pro-choice caucus this summer after appearing with the women at numerous press conferences as the lone male lawmaker. He says joining the group would help him stay informed about women’s issues and allow him to become more intimately involved with legislation pertaining to women’s rights.

The caucus meets on an informal basis to review pending legislation and determine legislative priorities. It holds press conferences to call attention to pressing issues and typically schedules an annual meeting with the speaker of the House to lobby for votes on its issues. This year, however, the caucus has not yet met with Speaker Dennis Hastert, a Republican from Illinois.

“Women have . . . to have advocates not just among themselves,” Kildee said in a telephone interview. “They have had great leadership [within their own community] but they need to reach outside. Civil rights groups have generally reached out to the whole community.”

Women’s caucus co-chair Juanita Millender-McDonald, a California Democrat, thinks Kildee is onto something. She’s welcomed him as an honorary nonvoting member in a year when the group is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

“There have always been sensitive men who have rallied around women,” Millender-McDonald said. “We’re so happy this year to have our lone male member, Congressman Dale Kildee, who just said, ‘I like what you guys are doing, I support what you guys are doing, and I want to be a part of it.’

“I think it’s a step in the right direction, for heaven’s sake,” she continued. “I think in 25 years, men are beginning to want to coalesce with the women of the House.”

But Millender-McDonald’s co-chair, GOP Rep. Judy Biggert of Illinois, was surprised to hear of her colleague’s decision. She said neither Kildee nor Millender-McDonald had discussed the prospect of opening the group to men with her or other members of the caucus.

“Whenever we decide to do something, [review] legislation or make a floor statement, whenever we take a stand on something, we work together,” Biggert said with an air of concern. The caucus bylaws, she said, mandate that a request of Kildee’s nature receive a caucus-wide vote. “I’m surprised I haven’t heard anything about this,” she said. “This is just a forum for women members,” she added.

Kildee’s anti-choice record, Biggert noted, would not be a deciding factor concerning his membership. She said the group welcomes women from both parties regardless of their political views. “The caucus is for all women members of Congress,” she said. “It doesn’t have to do with the pro-choice or pro-life issue.”

Kildee, a former seminary school student who opposes abortion, the death penalty and war in Iraq for religious reasons, said his anti-choice stance would not affect his involvement in the women’s club.

“They know my position very, very well,” he said. Women legislators, Kildee added, know he is not “anti-woman.”

Caucus’s History Stretches Back a Quarter Century

The group, formerly known as the Congressional Women’s Caucus, was founded in 1977 by 15 Democratic and Republican members of congress. Four years later, they reached out to their male colleagues and invited them to join as non-voting associate members. More than 100 men accepted the offer that year, and the group changed its name to the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues.

But in 1995, the newly elected Republican majority voted to eliminate funding for offices and staff of caucus organizations on Capitol Hill. As a result, the caucus changed from a taxpayer-subsidized legislative group to an informal coalition of women lawmakers. At that time, they decided to restrict membership to women lawmakers alone.

Now, after seven years with no male representation, the 44 Democratic and 18 Republican women lawmakers may open their arms to a strong male ally. A senior member of the House Education Committee, Kildee has devoted much of his 26-year career to support legislation backed by women. He points to two pieces of legislation–the Act for Better Child Care and the Gender Equity in Education Act–as highlights of his effort to improve the lives of women and families.

Two decades ago, Kildee was the chief sponsor of a new law that provided federal grants to help establish child care facilities and improve the quality of existing programs. He subsequently authored a law that created federally funded programs to help encourage female students to take math and science classes.

Kildee, who is expected to defeat Republican challenger Thom Moffit on Election Day, entered politics at the state level in 1964 as an acolyte of then-President Lyndon Johnson, whose Great Society legislation inspired the former divinity student to join the war against poverty and fight for civil rights and social reforms. He won his first election to federal office 12 years later.

When it comes to women’s rights, Kildee says he found his greatest inspiration from three generations of women: his mother, his wife and his daughter.

His mother, Kildee says, started working in 1916 at the age of 16 and earned exactly half of what her male colleagues did–“and that’s not fair,” Kildee said. His wife and daughter, Kildee added, have educated him about working in the male-dominated world of business where gender equality is a goal rather than a reality.

“Generally, I try to go into those areas where people’s dignity and rights are not adequately protected,” said Kildee, a former high school teacher who joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League in the early 1960s and participated in a number of civil rights marches at the same time. A white Roman Catholic, Kildee also serves as co-chair of the Native American Caucus.

Caucus Hopes More Men Will Join, More Women Will Lead

If Kildee becomes the first male member to join the caucus as an honorary member since 1995, he won’t be the last, according to Millender-McDonald. She said several men have approached her about joining the group as it enters its second quarter century. She declined to mention names, but Kildee said California Democrat George Miller and New York Republican Amo Houghton would be strong candidates for admission.

Millender-McDonald, who will step down as chair of the caucus at the end of this congressional session, declined to speculate about whether men would ever have full voting rights. Neither would Biggert, noting that any such decision would be up to the caucus members.

In addition to more male members, Millender-McDonald noted that she expects to see more women in Congress, more women in leadership positions and viable women presidential candidates in the next 25 years.

Until then, Millender-McDonald said, the caucus will continue to concentrate on one of its top priorities: women’s health, an area in which the caucus has seen its greatest legislative accomplishments. The women point to achievements in the early 1990s, including the establishment of the office of research on women’s issues at the National Institutes of Health and opening clinical trials there to women.

The caucus will also continue to focus on issues including the status of women globally, education, violence against women and a number of economic issues such as job training, small-business incentives and child care funding.

“We find ourselves talking about the very same things the women were talking about in 1977,” Millender-McDonald said, noting that today there are more single women than there were 25 years ago. There are also more women in the workforce, on welfare and in need of child care, she said. “We talk about issues that seem to . . . become a perpetual motion, if you will, of subjects that the women’s caucus engages in on an ongoing basis.”

Allison Stevens covers politics in Washington.

For more information:

Women’s Policy, Inc.:

Congressman Dale E. Kildee:

Congresswoman Juanita Millender-McDonald: