Women in Government: Could 2012 Be Another Year of the Woman

How the Personal Becomes Political: Will 2012 Become the Next Surge for Women?

In 1991 my mother and I moved to DC from Kansas City, Missouri. I was 13 years old and it would be the first time that I had ever lived anywhere but the house that I grew up in. My mother was the Regional Counsel for FTA and was being transferred to the Chief Counsel’s office. I grew up knowing strong empowered women, because my mother had broken a few glass ceilings of her own – while being a single mother and raising two children. We had a comfortable lifestyle, because my Mom had put herself through law school (one of 3 women in her class), despite being met with male chauvinism every step of the way. My mother eventually became the first woman Junior President of the Kansas City Bar Association and forged a path through government. Her current position is Senior Director of Program Procurement Policy at the Millennium Challenge Corporation. But I digress…

The year 1991 was a watershed moment in what is known as the third wave of the women’s liberation movement. That year iconic Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall assumed senior status. His retirement meant that President George H.W. Bush had to replace him, and the pressure was on to find another African-American justice. Now, in 1991 a conservative African-American Justice was not the easiest to find. Court of Appeals Judge Clarence Thomas received the nomination on July 8, 1991. Then during his confirmation hearings in September a story leaked about allegations that Thomas had sexually harassed an attorney that worked for him while he was Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the US Department of Education named Anita Hill.

The Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings became infamous and a source of popular culture satire. What had become most apparent to the everyone was how few women were in the United States Congress. The US Senate Committee on the Judiciary contained not one female member, in fact there were only two women members of the US Senate at that time. The all-male committee was widely viewed as berating Anita Hill, showing a disdain for women who claimed to being objectified in the workplace. Thomas received confirmation on October 15th, 48 to 52. But the hearings had left an indelible mark on society and workplace ethics and conduct would be forever changed.

Now two things were happening in 1992. The first was a little known Arkansas Governor named Bill Clinton was rapidly gaining traction and soon to become the nominee against President Bush. A personally wealthy Bush had made light of the current recession that was happening at that time, as well as dealing with the increasing unpopularity of his Vice-President Dan Quayle – who made the word “potato” more complicated than it ever had been. Governor Clinton strongly messaged on the economy, as well as adult literacy which he believed was a roadblock for getting us out of the recession. The race for President also got a third candidate, wealthy businessman Ross Perot – who would eventually siphon enough votes away from Bush to cost him the election.

Since the 1970’s the majority of women elected to office in this country have been Democrats. So when Democrats do well.The second thing that happened was an influx of women candidates for elective office, 1992 saw more women file for public office than it ever had. The realization that women were in dire need of representation in the halls of power had become abundantly clear. On election night, 5 women were elected to the US Senate and 47 women were elected to the US House. This meant that the numbers of women practically doubled. Women also saw major gains in state elective office as well.

Fast Forward 20 years to 2012. Another round of redistricting (as also happened in 1992) has forced some members into retirement and created new districts with no incumbents, which means there are more open seats than usual. According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, there could be as many as 320 women file for the United States Congress. And the contraception coverage debate has reminded American women that male chauvinism still exists and the only way to achieve true equality in the United States is to elect more women.

2012 promises to be a very interesting year for women in politics. The Democrats hopes of maintaining control of the United States Senate will hinge on the success of three women candidates (Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts, and Shelley Berkley in Nevada), and there is likely to be a woman vs. woman contest in Hawaii where Former Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle will probably face US Rep. Mazie Hirono for an open seat. None of these states have ever sent a woman to the US Senate. The Republicans will also be looking to Hawaii for a win, as well as New Mexico where former US Rep. Heather Wilson will be the GOP nominee.

There will most likely be 283 women file to run for the US House, this would be the most women ever to file; 67 incumbents are likely to file, 72 women in open seats (in 39 districts), and 144 challengers. As primary season kicks into gear, 23 out of 34 women have already won their primaries; specifically, Former Ohio House Minority Leader Joyce Beatty in OH 03, Former US Asst. Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs Tammy Duckworth in IL 08, and East Moline Alderwoman Cheri Bustos in IL 17. These women are widely expected to be successful in their November races.

Its a good chance that 2012 could indeed become another Year of the Woman, however even at this pace it will take 70 years for women to achieve parity in the US Congress. Let’s hope not.

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