Saturday, July 31, 2010

Electing More Women: Just how much of a difference will it make?

Since I’ve spent the past few decades working on ending the under-representation of women in politics, I welcomed the opportunity to attend the Blogher pre-conference workshop led by Marie Wilson, founder of the White House Project . I was once an enthusiastic supporter of the White House Project. I’m still a supporter, but recent events have made me less convinced that electing women per se is going to make the enormous difference I once expected.

I’m no longer so certain that women will be more likely to advance pro-women and family-friendly issues. In the past there was considerable evidence supporting that hypothesis. In 2000, in Madam President: shattering the last glass ceiling, Eleanor Clift and Tom Brazaitis wrote:

There is evidence at every level where women have played a role in governing that their politics overall tend toward the progressive side. Research by the Rutgers center for the American Women and politics shows that a conservative woman is more likely to favor somewhat more progressive policies than her conservative male counterpart. If only women’s votes counted in congress, the Family leaves Act and other family friendly legislation would have passed years earlier.

In 2000, when I read Madam President: shattering the last glass ceiling, I thought it was self–evident: if we want family friendly polices, we must elect more women. I have been making this argument for years at political meetings/Women’ Studies conferences/my Women’s Studies classes, and didn’t expect I might have to rethink what I so firmly believed to be the case.

What a difference a decade has made! A new breed of Republican women is upending my expectations about women in politics. There have always been women on the right, but not so many, not so visible. It’s much harder to think of them as outliers. And as Katha Politt in her must-read Nation article, “Grisly Mamas” reminds us:
There are lots of conservative white women voters in America. In 2000, white women went for Bush by one point; in 2004, 55 percent chose Bush over Kerry; and in 2008, after all we'd been through, 53 percent chose McCain over Obama. In a way, when we feminists and progressives talk about "women voters" in that rah-rah EMILY's List way, we are buying our own propaganda, because really it's women of color, especially black women, who push "women" solidly into the Democratic camp...

This mindset explains why so many are surprised that the Tea Party is full of women...A widely cited Quinnipiac University poll reported that the majority of Tea Partyers—55 percent—were women... According to Gallup, women are 45 percent of the Tea Party, but whatever the exact figure, it's safe to say there are a whole lot of Mama Grizzlies out there.

Given these numbers, it should have been no surprise that right wing women such as Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman, and Sharron Angle should emerge. And not only are they challenging my old belief that women have different political values, but also challenging the idea that women bring a different style. Women were supposed to bring a kinder, gentler, more conciliatory style to the political arena—not act like a pit-bull with lipstick, in Palin's memorable phrase.

This is one consequence of the success of the feminist movement that I didn’t foresee(although I certainly should have): women of all political stripes are entering public life and in some cases building successful political careers based on opposing a women’s fundamental right to control her own body. As Katha Politt puts it:

These days conservative women work, and fundamentalist stay-home moms want to be in public life. They have the same desire for power and respect and a place in the sun that liberal women do.

So if it longer holds that electing more women is a win for feminist values, then does it matter?

Well, yes. Right wing women like Palin, Bachman, Angle do their part to normalize the idea of women in public life. It matters that young girls see women in all walks of life and political persuasions aspiring to and winning high political office

As long as women are under-represented in American political life, I’ll continue to work to increase their representation, but the rise of right wing women has caused me to rethink the probable consequences of gender parity in politics.

True, those societies where women are strongest in political representation have some of the most family friendly policies, but it’s not clear what’s cause and what's effect. Do the Scandinavian counties have generous social welfare policies such as high quality, affordable childcare because relatively high numbers of women are involved in public life? Or do both the policies and the high proportion of women politicians stem from deeper cultural values?

Many feminists have focused on the gender gap in voting patterns–-and it does persist and even widened somewhat in the last election. According to the Center for American Women in Politics :

Obama won the support of a clear majority of women voters (56 percent) compared with Kerry’s very slim majority among women’s voters (51 percent). In contrast, McCain did worse with women voters, attracting only 43 percent of their votes, compared with the 48 percent of women’s votes that George W. Bush won in 2004.

With Obama winning the votes of 46 percent of white women but only 41 percent of white men, a gender gap among white voters was clearly apparent. Obama’s share of white women voters in 2008 also exceeded Kerry’s in 2004 (44 percent).

A gender gap was also evident among Latinos, where 68 percent more of women versus 64percent of men cast votes for Obama. An overwhelming majority of both black women (96percent) and black men (95 percent) supported Obama.

But the gender gap is insignificant compared to the generation gap. According to Pew Research Report, Young Voters in the 2008 Election :

While Obama captured 66% of the youth vote, compared with McCain's 31%, voters age 30 and older divided roughly evenly between the two candidates. Among those ages 18-29, Obama took a majority among whites (54%-44%), and captured more than three-fourths of young Hispanic voters (76%-19%) and a margin of 95%-4% among young black voters.

Maybe the focus of feminists should be on getting more young women into the political pipelines.

Bottom line: I’m still committed to equal representation, but no longer so convinced it will lead to a kinder, more egalitarian nation.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The real reason I retired—more time for political activism!

The real reason I retired—more time for political activism!

I started my blog in order to write about retirement issues—the decision, the process, and the actual experience of leaving the paid work force. However, I find myself writing increasingly about politics rather than on retirement life.

When I looked at posts archived by subject I have: 22 posts for Politics/World Events; 15 posts for FEMINISM; 16 posts for Retirement LIFE; 10 posts for Retirement: the decision and process.

This blog is clearly tipping in the direction of a political blog—not my original intent at all.

I just re-read my earlier posts about my reasons for retiring. The main one was fear of burn-out. I wanted to stop teaching before I was totally burned-out, a spectral presence creeping along the hallways, the ghost of my former self. (There are already too many of them at my former work place.)

I didn’t realize how close to serious burn-out I was until I stopped teaching. One of my colleagues who has seen many of his age cohort retire told me, when you retire “all those dissatisfactions you repressed--so you could keep on going day after day--rise to the surface. When you’re no longer facing years on the same job, it’s safe to acknowledge that you’re burning out."

Aside from my fear of burn-out, I had a long list of projects I wanted to do. My pre-retirement laundry list included: writing this blog; finally finishing a research project on second wave feminism in Philadelphia; learning Spanish; doing a little traveling; staying involved in the feminist/ social justice movement; getting my garden in shape; reading all those books I want to get to before I check out; and hanging out with my wonderful husband.

So how has it worked out? I’ve been doing a lot of hanging out with my husband and good friends and doing some traveling. The blog has been great fun and I’ve made some progress on my history of second wave feminism—although I need to step up my pace if I’m going to finish this while I still have a few brain cells and eyesight left.

Sad to say my garden doesn’t seem to be in any better shape than it was in my working years. That trip to New England got in the way of fall clean-up/bulb planting. And that trip to Peru came at the very worst time for a gardener—April. Instead of trekking about Machu Picchu, I should have been fertilizing and dividing hostas.

I’ve read far fewer books than I expected and haven’t been all that serious about Spanish—although I’ve improved a little.

But I have been doing a lot more political/feminist activist stuff.

And it’s not just that I’m doing more; I’m enjoying it more. In my final working years, I was missing more and more meetings. In my last year on the job, just about the only meetings I went to were those I had to chair.

So now instead of falling asleep during meetings I’m actually enjoying them—especially the social dimension. The NOW meetings are so much more enjoyable now that I no longer have to chair them. And I can now come late and leave early just like everybody else!

I’ve always been something of a participant/observer in my activist role. I’m fascinated by the group dynamics and the motivations of political actors. Crazy as it might sound I think one of the main reasons I retired was that I could go to more political meetings. My job was getting in the way of my activist projects.

Will this continue through my later retirement years? My guess is it will now that the internet allows us to be political activists (of a sort) without ever leaving home!

Now it’s not all fun and games. Working within the Democratic Party can be seriously depressing at times. And the most depressing part is not so much when the bad guys are up to their dirty tricks but when the good guys wimp out and shrink from confronting them. A comment on my post at Daily Kos from Bill W really gave me pause:

I'm in Northern NJ, and for the first time in over a decade, I won't be on the ballot for County Committee. I've given up any hope of seeing a reform movement wrest control from the corrupt county machine. A few years back, they found a novel way of removing Committee members who were not loyal to the boss -- they forged letters of resignation from five members. This kind of crap goes on all over the place, and it's driving good people away from the party.

I worry that I'm wasting my time (and time is precious at this stage of life) on electoral politics. But for now I intend to soldier on.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Philadelphia Democratic Party is worse than I realized; it looks like I have another volunteer project.

The Philadelphia Democratic Party is worse than I realized. I’ve been a committeeperson for decades in the liberal oasis of Philadelphia's 9th ward. Curious about how the Democratic Party works outside of the 9th ward, I decided to step out of my comfort zone and run for Pennsylvania Democratic State Committee. (This may turn out to be one of those careful what you wish for experiences.)

A recent incident in Southwest Philly reported in City Paper made me think I should be focusing on my own backyard rather than State Committtee . Holly Otterbein’s “When Elections Don't Matter: The city Democratic Party doesn't always care what voters think” ”is a must read for Philly progressives.

Six residents of the 40th Ward, in Southwest Philadelphia, decided to run for Democratic committee positions. Most of them were community leaders but new to politics. They said they were motivated by a desire to improve the appallingly low voter turn-out in their neighborhood and to improve the quality of life in their community.

The Democratic Party challenged their petitions and 5 of them were either kicked off the ballot or withdrew. Tracey Gordon survived the petition challenge and she won the election with 38 votes. Here’s where it gets really interesting. According to Holly Otterbein,

...on June 7, at the ward's first post-election meeting, deputy chair Gregory Moses suggested that the committee oust Gordon. He cited a bylaw to support his position:

"If at any time in the opinion of the majority of the entire ward committee, a member is unfaithful to the Democratic Party and the best interests of the party, or refuses, fails or neglects to work in harmony with the ward committee, the ward committee shall be empowered to remove said person from its membership."

The committee agreed, and unanimously voted Gordon out......

Gordon asked for a copy of the bylaw she broke. That request was denied. She also phoned the DCC, Philly Democratic kingpin U.S. Rep. Bob Brady and the Pennsylvania Democratic Party about the meeting, but heard zip back.

"How can a ward go against the will of the citizens who elected me?" she asks.
She still doesn't even have a copy of the bylaw used to toss her out.

What I found especially interesting is that the party officials would not produce a written rule: I had a similar (although far less outrageous) experience at Democratic State Committee. See My new volunteer project: The Pennsylvania State Democratic Committee

It turns out this rule does exist in written form in the Party’s by-laws. We progressives must protest Democratic City Committee’s unseating of a duly elected committee person and demand the removal of the clause which allows a ward committee to overturn the results of an election. To quote again from the City Paper article:

Though Gordon and the group's plight might seem like small potatoes, it speaks to a larger, more troubling issue: If the DCC can so easily push out an elected committee person simply because she wanted to bring in new blood, how will potentially corrupt elements in the party ever be weeded out?

There is the argument quoted in City Paper that "Parties are essentially private,” and can do whatever they want. Granted they are technically private organizations; however, in a one party town like Philadelphia the Democratic party fulfills a quasi public function. Almost all our elected officials-- the mayor, district attorney, controller, most city council representatives and all local judicial candidates-- hold office by virtue of winning a Democratic primary. The way the Democratic Party operates has consequences for all our citizens.

Well, it looks like I have another volunteer project. I’m trying to interest some organizations I belong to to form a network of Philly progressives who work within the party structure. Often we do not know of each other’s existence. We have no way of communicating with each other and supporting each other.

If we were organized, when the party does something egregious, there would be an organized group which could take some action and try to combat the cynicism and apathy which allows the Democratic City Committee to get away with making a mockery of democracy. If we achieve modicum of success, it might encourage more progressives and fair minded citizens of all poltical persuasions to run for committee person slots.

Bottom line: We have to speak out against what happened in Southwest Philly. If those of us who are committee people and thus representatives of the Democratic Party in our neighborhoods, don’t speak out, then we’re complicit.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Thoughts on the 2010 NOW conference and the future of the feminist movement

The National Organization for Women conference was an upbeat experience this year. As far as I could determine, the wounds from last year’s bitterly contested election have healed—or so it appeared. At the end of last year’s conference I was really depressed and thought the defeat of the candidate I supported was a major setback for the organization.

What a difference a year makes. The sky has not fallen. The new team led by Terry O’Neill is doing a good job and the defeat of the team I supported no longer seems like a major tragedy. There’s a lesson here, I suppose.

The speakers at the plenary sessions were inspirational and the workshops filled with useful information and lively discussion. But I had hoped for more hard strategic thinking about the future of the feminist movement. What should be our priorities? How do we frame our message in a more effective way? What alliances should we build?

I attended the plenary session "State of the Women's Movement: Feminism Today and Tomorrow” seeking answers to these questions. The first speaker, renowned scientist and president of Wellesley College Kim Bottomly, had a compelling personal story. When she began her academic studies, she entered a scientific world devoid of women. She has dedicated her life to changing that world. Her focus was on helping individual women to advance—critically important but not directly relevant to building a feminist movement.

The next speaker, Professor of Communications and media critic Susan Douglas. described the dangers of “Enlightened Sexism”---the title of her new book. Enlightened sexists acknowledge the gains feminists have made, but make the specious claim that full equality has been achieved. Since sexism is a thing of the past, we can all lighten up and spend our time on shopping for make-up, sexy clothes and other girly pursuits. Douglas made a powerful case that much unfinished business remains and ended her presentation with a call to action but it wasn’t at all clear what that would involve.

She was followed by former Senator and Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun, an engaging speaker who focused on the lessons of her 2004 Presidential campaign—not so much on the direction of the feminist movement. She argued that gender trumps race. Not so sure I agree with this, but I am sure we need to get beyond this hierarchy of oppression.

The last speaker, journalist and syndicated columnist Amy Goodman , spoke passionately about the need for independent media “which covers power, not covers for power”-- but not much about the future of the feminist movement.

I got a lot more insight about the "State of the Women's Movement: Feminism Today and Tomorrow" at the next day’s plenary, “Lifting Every Voice: Women of Color and Empowerment.” The speakers addressed the issue of priorities for the women’s movement and modeled a way of talking about race/gender/class which does not rank forms of oppression but analyzes the ways women from different racial, ethnic and socio-economic groups experience gender discrimination.

The first speaker was Irasema Garza , president of Legal Momentum, the women's legal defense and education fund which advocates for immigrant women and for poor women. Garza stated that the public discussion of immigration often ignores the special problems of immigrant women. Also, millions of women have not been in position to take advantage of the legal guarantees which have allowed more privileged women to advance. Garza argued that at this stage issues affecting low-income women, who are disproportionately women of color, must be the priorities of the feminist movement.

Kilolo Kijakazi, program officer in the Economic Opportunity and Assets Program at The Ford Foundation, gave us a sense of the dimensions of the problem and the enormous amount of work we must do to remedy economic injustice. She argued that inequitable public policies are primarily responsible for the wealth gap for people of color—especially women of color. She noted that African-Americans largely missed out on some of the biggest wealth-building opportunities of the past century, as they had limited access to government-encouraged homeownership programs such as the Homestead Act, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, and the GI Bill after World War II.

Dr. Paula A. Johnson, executive director of the Connors Center for Women's Health and Gender Biology and associate professor of medicine, Harvard Medical School, noted that there is still much to be done in health care reform and that many women, particularly women of color, will not be able to access health care because they can’t afford the premiums. She also noted that research into women’s health is still inadequate and that we don’t know how race/ethnicity intersects with gender in understanding women’s health needs.

Andrea Cabral, sheriff of Suffolk County, Mass., and the first Black American female sheriff in Massachusetts history argued for viewing violence a against women as a public health issue. Her approach was similar to Johnson’s in that she focused on the ways women’s experience of domestic violence varied in terms of race/ ethnicity, sexuality, socio-economic class and citizenship status.

This plenary session provided a very useful model for how we have to prioritize and frame issues. But I was disappointed there were no women labor leaders on this (or any other) panel. Garza does have a stint at the Department of Labor on her resume but somewhat to my surprise she did not mention the importance of the labor movement as a means for addressing the issue of women in poverty. We must build alliances with feminists in the labor movement and with organizations such as the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) .

I think the leadership of NOW (past and present) supports the agenda for which Garza, Kijakazi, Johnson, and Cabral advocate, but if NOW as an organization is to effectively support this agenda, it must revitalize its grass roots.

I’m not worried about the future of the feminist movement. See the transcript of Katie Couric’s interview with Gloria Steinem and Jehmu Greene, "Feminism is Alive and Well ... Even Sarah Palin Wants to Be One.” The feminist movement consists of a multitude of organizations focusing on a wide range of issues. And there are all those committed feminists who may not be part of the organized movement but challenge sexism in their daily lives.

But I am worried about the future of NOW. I’ve been going to national NOW conferences for some time now and the faces of the older members are the same from year to year. The younger conference attendees for the most part change every year. There is deep loyalty to the organization among the older members; younger members do not appear to be developing the same sense of loyalty. They may have a powerful connection to the feminist movement, but not necessarily to any particular organization.

So why don’t they stay? One reason is that young people move around a lot. Several members told me they thought the model of virtually autonomous geographically based chapters needs to be rethought. There are some thriving chapters, but far too many chapters which have shrunk to a president for life and an ever-dwindling mailing list.

I was not surprised when my resolution to introduce term limits for officers of state and local organizations failed. Although NOW has instituted term limits for national officers and national board members, many state organizations and local chapters do not have term limits policies and officers have held their positions for decades.

As chapter and state organizations are the training grounds for new national officers, we can’t clog the pipeline by allowing officers to hang on to their positions forever.

NOW of course is not the only organization whose members react negatively to any suggestion for doing things differently from past practice. Too often folks with progressive values turn into the most hard-bitten conservatives when it comes to organizational change.

When I suggested a modest change in the formula for representation on the PA state board—currently a chapter with 50 members has the same number of representatives as chapter with 300 members—I got the response, “We’ve been doing this for 40 years.” End of discussion.

At the same session where I introduced my sure-to-fail term limits resolution a young woman introduced a resolution to allow members to vote by mail for national officers and by-laws changes as many members cannot afford travel expenses and thus cannot cast their vote in person.

A veteran member (in what the young women experienced as a patronizing, supercilious manner) immediately shot her down with: “This is out of order because it would require a by-laws change.” (It’s not clear if this was in fact the case.) After the session, a few older members encouraged her to hang in there and try again, but I worry she may not come back. It seemed it was not so much the failure of her resolution that bothered her but the dismissive reaction.

And so it goes—-the old guard vs. the young Turks. Of course many of the older members (especially those active on the national level) are very much concerned about building new leadership and making the organization more diverse and more responsive to younger members.

Does it matter whether NOW continues to survive and thrive? NOW is the only multi–issue, multi-strategy feminist organization which operates on the local, state and national levels. It has a proud history and I hope a vibrant future.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

My evolving feelings about the 4th of July

Reading Julianne Malveaux’s thoughtful column On July 4, hopes for a better nation prompted me to reread my last year’s 4th of July post, Why I feel better about the 4th of July and about retiring now that Obama is President

I stand by that post. There’s part of me which still can’t quite believe we elected an African-American President. I never expected to see it in my lifetime. This generation of young people is very different from my age cohort and it’s largely because of them that Obama won. But will they vote in 2010?

I don’t share the disillusionment of some progressives with our president. We elected a President, not a miracle worker. Yes, I have concerns about some of his policies—-principally the war in Afghanistan. But he managed to get through a stimulus program which brought the economy back from the brink of real disaster. And if we didn’t have such a dysfunctional congress, much more would have been done.

We have a long way to go before we have real recovery, but the dismantling of regulatory agencies at the root of the current economic crisis dates back to the Clinton years. This crisis was many years in the making.

And in this economic climate, President Obama (with a lot of help from Nancy Pelosi still managed to pass a healthcare bill establishing access to heath care as a right of all citizens. Sure, it’s an imperfect bill but just as with other programs (such as social security) which started as deeply flawed, we now have the opportunity to improve the bill. We’re no longer debating the basic right to health care; the debate can now move to making the existing program more inclusive, more affordable.

Over all President Obama's record is impressive. Of all the criticisms of the President, the most ridiculous is the complaint that he is not going ballistic about the BP oil spill catastrophe. In a widely reported exchange, Obama was castigated by CNN's Ed Henry for insufficient display of anger:

Mr. Henry who made a spectacle of himself at one of President Obama's earliest press conferences when he repeatedly demanded to know why the president was letting other politicians sound madder than he was about AIG's executive bonuses. "So on AIG, why did you wait—why did you wait days to come out and express that outrage.... It took you days to come public with Secretary Geithner and say, 'Look, we're outraged.' Why did it take so long?" Obama's answer: "Well, it took us a couple of days because I like to know what I'm talking about before I speak."

I want a President who thinks before he acts, who approaches difficult issues in a calm, measured way. What’s wrong with that?

So this July 4 (which I’m celebrating in Boston at the national NOW conference), I’m still feeling good about my country and proud of our president and especially proud of the women—especially the young women--I’ve met at the NOW conference this week-end.