Karen Brisco cast her vote for Barack Obama

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–After eight years on the political sidelines, women’s rights advocates cheered Tuesday as it became clear they will have a new ally in the White House and more friends in Congress and the governors’ mansions next year.

In his historic quest for the presidency, Democrat Sen. Barack Obama–the first African American to win a major-party presidential nomination–prevailed over Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona. He did so with 56 percent of the women’s vote and 49 percent of the men’s vote.

“It’s a historic victory for women,” said Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, co-founder and executive director of MomsRising, an Internet-based advocacy group that lobbies on behalf of mothers.

A staunch supporter of women’s rights, Obama will succeed President George W. Bush, who has pushed policies promoted by fiscal and religious conservatives such as tax cuts and opposition to same-sex marriage, abortion and most methods of birth control. Pushed to the side during Bush’s tenure were policies backed by groups that lobby on behalf of women such as access to abortion and contraceptives, Title IX and funds for federal programs that aid the poor, most of whom are women.

As president, Obama is expected to reclaim those issues, said Ruth Rosen, a historian and journalist based in Berkeley, Calif. She predicted he would reverse executive orders implemented by Bush that restrict access to abortion and contraception and appoint judges and officials who regard women’s health from a scientific rather than a religious perspective.

Rowe-Finkbeiner added that Obama also paid unusual attention to issues relating to women’s economic security–such as fair pay, paid sick leave and early childhood education–on the campaign trail. She expects him to pay more heed to those issues than previous presidents have. “It’s really a frame shift,” she said.

Women won a majority of the state Senate seats in New Hampshire last night, making it the first legislative body in the country to be dominated by women. Of the 24 senators, 11 are female Democrats and two are female Republicans.

Resurgent Democrats

Women’s rights groups also cheered the resurgence of the Democratic Party, which sides with progressive women more often than the GOP.

In the House, Democrats will hold at least 252 seats, or 58 percent of the 435-member chamber. Results in 11 additional races are still being tabulated.

In the Senate, Democrats will hold at least 56 seats, and could hold as many as 60, which would give them enough votes to override a filibuster, the most powerful tool a minority has to block the majority party’s agenda. Four races are still undecided.

That gives Democrats the kind of numbers they have not seen since 1992, when Democrats held 258 seats in the House and 56 seats in the Senate. They lost those majorities in the “Republican Revolution” of 1994.

Female candidates also had a good night, picking up seats in both chambers of Congress and one more gubernatorial seat in North Carolina, where Democrat Bev Perdue won her historic bid for the statehouse.

When the 111th Congress convenes in January, women will hold a record 17 Senate seats–or 17 percent of the chamber, a net gain of one over the current Congress. At least 10 new women will serve in the House, and one race involving a female candidate remains undecided, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey in New Brunswick.

With 17 percent of the House, women are inching closer to the 20-percent benchmark some political observers say is needed for a minority to wield considerable influence over the majority. Other political experts put the “critical mass” threshold at a higher percentage.

“This is another moment in time where we’re going to be adding more women and we’ll really be able to shift the discussion,” said Barbara Lee, head of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, in Cambridge, Mass., a philanthropy that supports programs aimed at increasing women’s representation in politics, public policy and the news media.

Highlights included victories in New Hampshire, where former Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen ousted GOP Sen. John Sununu; In Maine, where GOP Sen. Susan Collins beat back a challenge from Democratic Rep. Tom Allen; and in Florida, where Democrat Suzanne Kosmas ousted Republican incumbent Tom Feeney.

There were losses for women as well. In North Carolina, Sen. Elizabeth Dole suffered a crushing defeat to state Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat. In Indiana, former Rep. Jill Long Thompson, a Democrat, lost her bid to oust sitting Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican. And several women seeking House seats came up short.

Heralding a ‘New’ New Deal

With Democrats in firm control of the White House and Congress, some political observers predict a repeat of the “New Deal,” the name given the series of work-relief and economic recovery programs enacted between 1933 and 1936 under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Such programs have a disproportionate effect on women because they are more likely than men to lose their jobs in times of economic downturn and have less wealth than men because they make less when they are employed.

Democrats may also push legislation of interest to women such as a bill to make it easier for workers to sue employers for wage discrimination. Other possible bills that could see action include proposals that would encourage insurance companies to cover contraceptives, spend more money on programs to combat domestic violence and require companies to allow workers to take leave to care for themselves and family members.

Meanwhile, reproductive rights advocates celebrated the downfall of two state initiatives that would have restricted access to abortion. In Colorado voters rejected a proposal to grant full legal rights to fetuses, which critics said would have threatened access to abortion, birth control, stem cell research and in vitro fertilization.

“This rejection by voters of Amendment 48 sends a clear message: personal, private health care decisions should be made by women, their doctors and their families, not by politicians,” said Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in New York. “We need government policies that improve access to health care, not take it away.”

Ballot Victories in States

In South Dakota voters soundly defeated a proposal to ban all abortions except those that are needed to preserve the life or health of the woman or those that arise in the wake of incest or rape, with 55 percent of voters against the ban, with 85 percent of the precincts reporting. Religious conservatives hoped to use the initiative as a legislative vehicle to challenge the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade that decriminalized abortion.

Another ballot initiative that would restrict access to abortion was too close to call. In California, voters considered a parental consent initiative that would have required women under 18 to tell her parents before she had an abortion and wait 48 hours before notification and the procedure. The results were unclear Wednesday morning.

Former Planned Parenthood president Gloria Feldt said the night’s victories did not portend the wane of the Religious Right. “They have moral certitude. They are always fired with that passion.”

Indeed, religious conservatives savored another round of victories at the state level with ballot initiatives to ban same-sex marriage. Voters backed such proposals in Arizona and Florida, and approved a separate initiative in Arkansas to ban gay couples from adopting children.

The fate of another anti-gay marriage ban remains unclear. Officials are still processing results of an effort in California to reverse the state Supreme Court’s decision to overturn a ban on same-sex marriage.

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.

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