Forward Momentum in the Senate

There were two major developments for First Woman in the U.S. Senate this year. One received extensive press coverage; the other did not.

Tammy Duckworth

Tammy Duckworth, Senator from Illinois, holds many firsts:

–First Woman double amputee of the Iraq War

–First disabled Woman elected to Congress

–First Asian-American Woman to represent Illinois.

–And now, the First Woman in the U.S. Senate to give birth while in office.

Considering how many women give birth, and that this country was founded 242 years ago, this seems almost inconceivable, but Senator Duckworth was the first. While she was pregnant the Senator raised the issue of family leave with the Senate. She advocated for benefits for families with young children or other family needs. She also helped overturn the prohibition of children on the Senate floor. After her baby was born, she brought her infant with her to the Senate floor, and made the news. A woman, with a baby, in public, doing her job.

Cindy Hyde-Smith

While Tammy Duckworth has received significant press, Cindy Hyde-Smith has not. Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi retired in April, for health reasons. At that time the Republican Governor of Mississippi, Dewey Phillip Bryan, appointed Cindy Hyde-Smith to fill Cochran’s term. She has indicated that she will run for the seat this November, hoping to utilize her background in agriculture and commerce to win support.

Cindy Hyde-Smith is not only the First Woman Senator from the State of Mississippi, she is, in fact, the First Woman to represent Mississippi in Congress. Perhaps, the long dry spell is not surprising, given that Mississippi did not ratify the Nineteenth Amendment that gave women the right to vote until 1984. But in Mississippi’s defense, there are still 20 states that have never sent a woman to the Senate. Do the math: 20 out of 50 states (or 40%) have never elected a woman Senator.

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Only 52 women have served in the Senate in the span of U.S. history; and only 23 are serving at this time. Once again, do the math: 23 women out of 100 (or 23%) represent more than 50% of the population. They have said that, given past progress, it will take another 100 years for women to achieve parity in Congress. Perhaps Senators Duckworth and Hyde-Smith are barrier-breakers who can speed up the trajectory for women’s success.

 

 

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Lives of Passionate Dedication

When First Women leave us, it is worthwhile to pause and learn what their lives taught us. Louise Slaughter served in Congress until the end of her life; Jeannette Woldseth fought to save lives as she was losing her own. Both show how a passion for others can fill a life.

Louise Slaughter (1929-2018)

Louise Slaughter was a U.S. Representative from New York, the First Woman to chair the House Rules Committee. When she died in March of this year, she was the oldest member of Congress and the last member of Congress who had been born in the 1920s.

While living in the Kentucky coal mining region, her sister died of pneumonia, firing an interest in health issues for Slaughter. At the University of Kentucky she earned a bachelor’s degree in microbiology and a master’s in public health.

It is no surprise that she was responsible for securing funding for the first time for breast cancer research at the National Institutes of Health (an earmark of $500 million) and worked for other health issues. She co-authored, along with Senator Joe Biden, the Violence Against Women Act. She later worked with Senator Christopher Dodd to establish a Woman’s Progress Commemorative Commission to monitor historic sites dedicated to women.

Jeannette Woldseth (1953-2018)

Jeannette Woldseth was the First Woman full-time paid firefighter in the state of Washington. She was 23 in 1977 when she joined the Bellevue Fire Department, after serving as a volunteer firefighter there. Her father had also been a volunteer firefighter and her grandfather had driven horse-drawn wagons to fires in Seattle during his career as a firefighter, so her choice was clearly in her blood.

She progressed to captain and was known for her precision and focus. When she first got breast cancer, she had a double mastectomy. When it recurred and had metastasized, she began fundraising money for other cancer victims, knowing the funds would not benefit her. Even as she was dying she focused on saving the lives of others.

Reflections on International Women’s Day

It has been 99 years since the first Women’s Day was observed in February, 1909. In 1975 the United Nations proclaimed March 8 as Women’s Day. Today women in Spain are on strike, banging pots and telling men to fix their own dinners. Women in the Ukraine are holding signs that say, “We are Wonder Women.” In France the daily newspaper Libération is charging women the usual 2 euros, but men must pay 2.5 euros to highlight the disparity between men’s and women’s pay.

In 1909, about 15,000 women marched in New York for the right to vote, for better pay and for a shorter workday. Women earned the right to vote the next year, and their pay and workdays have improved since that time. However, women, who are about half the workforce and earn more college and graduate degrees than men, still only earn 80 cents for every dollar earned by men. For women of color, the situation is even worse. If the amount paid to women improves at its current rate, white women will reach parity with men by 2059. Black women would have to wait until 2124 and Hispanic women until 2233.

That is the discouraging news, but there is encouraging news as well. I only have to look at the amazing women in my own family to know that we are making progress.

This is my sister Stephanie, who served as a nurse in Vietnam, and then ran her own business.

 

 

This is my niece Sharmel, who endeavored to provide food to developing countries, and now works in the State Department.

 

 

 

These are my granddaughters, ice skating when they were 19 and 20 years old. Almost a decade later, Joanna (on the left) is completing her Ph.D. and is a fantastic mother. Elizabeth (in the center) just opened her own restaurant in Los Angeles, and Phoebe (on the right) works in publishing in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. All are accomplished women.

As I sit here in my purple shirt, one of the suffragists’ colors, I do seethe a bit at how much progress we still need to make, but I bask in the knowledge that so many women today have come so far.

 

Does One Voice Matter?

(I haven’t published any political blogs before, but I found my experience this week so empowering I had to share.)

Does one vote count? Is one voice heard? It’s easy to be discouraged but heed the event that occurred this very week in the state of Washington.

LAST WEEK: THE BAD NEWS

Washington has an open-records act that requires elected officials to conduct their business on behalf of the voters publicly. (Perhaps that’s why they are called “public” officials?) For decades the legislature has maintained that they are exempt, but last September media outlets sued the Washington legislature to obtain records. A county judge ruled that the legislature did have to abide by the open-records act. Over a period of 48 hours, the legislature passed a bill exempting themselves from most of the act. In particular they voted that legislators could withhold their calendars, emails, and any harassment complaints. This was passed by 84% in the Senate and 86% in the House—without any floor debate or public hearings.

The Governor said he would decide whether to sign the bill or to just let it sit on his desk for a few days when it would automatically become law because of his inaction. He saw no point in vetoing the bill as the vote had been “veto-proof.”

THIS WEEK: THE GOOD NEWS

Newspapers across the state printed editorials on their front pages condemning the action by the legislature. My local paper, The Seattle Times, had a full-page spread with the pictures and contact information for every legislator and the governor. I contacted both of my representatives, my senator, and the governor.

The Governor’s Office received over 20,000 phone calls, letters, and emails in just a few days. The outcry was unprecedented. Apparently, the legislators must have had a similar response. (Who knows exactly, since they don’t release information about their activities?) By the end of this week many of them contacted the governor and said they thought the bill should be rethought.

The Governor vetoed the bill and the legislature did not take a second vote to override. A task force, including the media, will be established to work through another version of the bill within the next nine months. It will apply to the legislature in 2019. (Who knew public records law was so complicated?)

THE MESSAGE TO TAKE TO HEART:

Yes, 20,000 responses are a lot. Yes, it was a larger number of responses than the Governor expected, but consider this: A response of 20,000 people represents less than ½ of one percent of the voters in the State of Washington. The voice of those 20,000, however, was loud, swift, and persistent.

Take heart, women who are pushing for more change. Take heart, young voters who are becoming politically active. Organize, move forward, persist. One voice can be heard when joined with just a few others.

Senator Tammy Duckworth to Give Birth While in the Senate

Tammy Duckworth will be the First Woman in the U.S. Senate to give birth while in office. Senator Duckworth is surprised at the attention she has received since announcing her pregnancy. “It is somewhat ridiculous,” she says, “that it’s 2018 and this is such big news.”

In a recent interview Senator Duckworth explainedd that there is no maternity leave policy for the Senate, so she is “working with the administration of the Senate to set some of the ground rules and develop the policy. I guess when you’re the first one, you have the opportunity to really push to set what the rules are for everyone.” She might have added that First Women often see this opportunity as an obligation, to work for the women following them.

The fact is that Senator Duckworth will receive twelve weeks paid leave, but this is only because that is the policy in her own office. All her staffers are eligible for the paid leave. Other offices in the Senate set their own leave policies, and not all are as generous.

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act provides 12 weeks of leave for birth or adoption, but there is no mandate for employers to pay employees during the leave. For many employees this leave is unpaid. Each employer can decide how to support the benefit, and Senators are considered individual employers. Vicki Shabo, of National Partnership for Women and Families says, “Congressional staff are at the mercy of their employer and are really part of a boss lottery.”

Senator Duckworth is also a disabled veteran who served in Iraq, the First Woman double amputee in the armed services. She joins four other women serving in Congress who are combat veterans.

Duckworth will not be the First Woman to give birth while serving in Congress. Yvonne Braithwaite Burke, the First African-American Woman elected to the House of Representatives from California, gave birth in office in 1973; but it was twenty-two years before another woman gave birth while in Congress. You can count on your fingers the number of births to women serving in the entire history of the Congress.

Although the numbers are small, it may be progress for an institution that did not even provide a restroom for women Senators until the 1960’s, and then only two stalls in a converted closet. As late as 2013, it required a public outcry from the twenty women Senators before they received upgraded facilities. Perhaps paid leave for childbirth, both in the Senate and in the nation, is another opportunity for public outcry from our legislative leaders. This is not a battle Senator Duckworth should have to wage alone.