Women Are Finding A Voice on the Hill

But for many, a real sense of inclusion proves elusive

SEVEN months after the female victors of the Year of the Woman have taken their seats, women's voices are being heard in the United States House and Senate like never before - both in the back rooms and the front halls.

But as the new women find their way through the arcane rules and men's-club mentality of Congress they are keenly aware of how far they have to go to find a real sense of comfort and inclusion.

The numbers help: The 100-member Senate now boasts a record seven women (two Republicans and five Democrats) compared with one of each last term. The 435-member House has a record 48 women (35 Democrats and 12 Republicans, plus the nonvoting District of Columbia delegate), compared with 29 last term. But despite heady proclamations that Congress now "looks more like America," it really doesn't. After all, 52 percent of the US population is female.

Women in Congress have not reached "critical mass," many members say. "When you hit 25 or 30 percent, something happens," says Rep. Maria Cantwell (D) of Washington. "You become a coalition to be dealt with." She should know: Washington State's legislature, from which she just graduated, is 33 percent women.

In terms of getting bills passed, the women of the 103rd Congress have yet to prove themselves. That will be particularly difficult in the House, where the leadership - the gatekeeper of legislation - includes only one woman. No committees are headed by women. And there is not a single woman among the "college of cardinals," the powerful chairmen of the 13 House appropriations subcommittees.

In interviews with members of both houses, congressional women stressed their unity on the so-called women's agenda - equity and the economy, education, health, and safety.

At times, the partisan seam in the women's caucus shows, such as over President Clinton's budget package. Five of the House's 12 Republican women don't belong to the women's caucus at all, in part over abortion. Within the caucus, unity on abortion has been shaken as some women supported a ban on federal abortion funding.

But overall, women are enthusiastic about their new status.

"I think there's a greater sensitivity on the part of the entire body on what we think," says Rep. Nita Lowey (D) of New York.

Rep. Eva Clayton (D) of North Carolina, an African-American and president of the House's 110-member freshman class, challenges the notion of women's issues. "I think they're really people's issues," she says, but adds: "I like to think men are also interested in families and communities and economic equity, but sometimes that doesn't hit their radar of priorities."

The greater numbers of women also mean more representation on committees and subcommittees, where the minutiae of legislation are worked out.

Several members mentioned the growing clout of the troika of Ms. Lowey, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D) of California, and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D) of Connecticut, who serve on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, which handles heath-care-spending legislation - and which hadn't had a Democratic woman member since 1974.

They have ensured that women's concerns are being addressed at the National Institutes of Health and will fight to keep abortion provisions in coming health-care reform.

"We certainly aren't enough to pass legislation, but we can change the atmosphere in a room," says Rep. Barbara Kennelly (D) of Connecticut, a deputy whip and the only woman in the House leadership. "And when there's more than one woman in the room, it eases the pressure on a woman to speak up every time." Fitting in

After Ms. Kennelly's election to Congress in 1982, she said she took up golf again to fit in, though she jokes she wishes she had taken up basketball, the sport of choice among many members.

Kennelly points out with a certain delight that the House women's caucus needed a big bus to take them to meet with Mr. Clinton last week on Congress's crucial budget-deficit conference. After 12 years of being snubbed by GOP presidents and their Cabinets, the caucus's 43 members are enjoying the attention of this administration.

Congress's women come from diverse backgrounds, with experiences that bring real life to the debate. Freshman Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D) of California was once a single mother on welfare. Another freshman, Rep. Carrie Meek (D) of Florida, was once a domestic worker. Both Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California and Patty Murray (D) of Washington lost their jobs when they became pregnant. New voices

The Senate's only African-American, new Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D) of Illinois, eloquently implored her Senate colleagues last week not to renew a group's insignia bearing the Confederate flag, a symbol of slavery. Her appeal was successful not just because she's black, but also because she's a woman, says first-term Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California.

She showed "her ability to reach into the souls of people, into their hearts, I think, as an African-American woman, in a way that may not have been as threatening as an African-American man," Ms. Boxer says.

But another emotional scene three weeks earlier in the House showed how much women legislators have to learn. The pro-abortion-rights majority of the women's caucus was keen to avoid a direct vote on the so-called Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding for abortions.

In preparation for the showdown with Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois, the women's pro-choice task force met with House parliamentarians to check on the rules. Mr. Hyde would not be allowed to legislate on a spending bill, they were assured.

But Hyde trumped them. He invoked an obscure 1908 precedent and worded his amendment in the passive voice, which bypassed the prohibition against legislating on an appropriations bill. He also beat the women on a procedural vote, and his amendment reached a vote, passing by a wide margin. Not only were the women defeated, "they felt euchred," a male House Democratic leadership aide said later.

"It was a terrible debate, and that won't heal for a while," says Lowey, head of the pro-choice task force. "There was a real feeling of pain on the part of these women. So whether the words were truly sexist, there was a perception of that. If we were men, I believe they wouldn't have talked to us that way."

"It was almost like our Anita Hill hearings," says Rep. Pat Schroeder (D) of Colorado, co-chair of the women's caucus.

The other blow to the pro-choice task force on the Hyde vote is that five women's caucus members voted for the amendment. The position of these white caucus women against federal funding for abortions has caused strain with some black women members, who tend to represent poorer districts.

The good news for male-female relations in Congress is that no other issue is as divisive as abortion. And, in fact, says Rep. Constance Morella (R) of Maryland, on issues such as violence against women and breast cancer, "Men are jumping on the bandwagon when women show leadership." Perhaps initially it's "because it's the fashionable thing," she says, but "then they understand the value of it. They have spouses, they have daughters, they have friends."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Women Are Finding A Voice on the Hill
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today