As her campaign to end the no-women-members policy at Augusta National Golf Club demonstrated, Martha Burk is insistent and urgent when pressing the cause of gender equality. And for all the attention, as well as criticism, the tone of that 2002 fight sent her way, this year’s controversy over whether the home of the Masters would offer a membership to Ginni Rometty, the chief executive of broadcast sponsor IBM, proved Burk’s battle continues on and off the course.
“Your Voice Your Vote: The Savvy Woman’s Guide to Power, Politics, and the Change We Need” is her 2012 “manifesto” that dissects, in encyclopedic fashion, the political process and the issues at stake for women and, as the book’s back cover puts it, “for male voters who care about the women in their lives.” Burk, the former chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations and current money editor for Ms. magazine, writes, “This book is not about any candidate or party,” but it’s clear where she stands. Her recent Huffington Post essay on the Supreme Court’s health-care ruling said: “In upholding the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the Roberts Court threw a hand grenade at those who are waging an unrelenting ‘war on women’ using access to health care as the main battering ram.”
Some points in “Your Voice Your Vote” are straightforward. After the 2010 midterm elections, conservative, primarily GOP candidates who ran and won on promises of economic austerity placed the issues of abortion and reproductive rights in their sights. “Conservative majorities and conservative leaders have shown in the past that they do not want to encourage birth control and indeed in many cases would eliminate it altogether,” Burk writes. Among the questions she encourages women to ask candidates: “Do you think birth control and mammograms should be covered without co-pays or deductibles? What about Viagra-type drugs?”
It’s also true that though women are in the majority in the United States, the total numbers of women in elected and appointed positions fall well below their percentage of the population and suffer in comparison with other countries, a situation much discussed by my She the People colleagues. (For example, Burk notes, “In August 2011, the U.S. ranked 69th in the world in the number of women in Congress.”)
The questions she lists at the end of chapters are equal-opportunity nudges. But the “we” included in the “change we need” in the title are decidedly women comfortable with the Ms. magazine mission. Burk wisely and broadly defines women’s issues well beyond abortion and reproductive rights, with much consideration given to economic concerns such as pay equality and affordable and quality child-care.
Although a gender gap continues to favor Democratic candidates and positions in elections, it’s also true that women fall on every side of the issues Burk raises, from taxes and health care to military engagement and lesbian and gay rights. In my home state of North Carolina, the three women among the state’s 13 congressional representatives are conservative Republicans who vote accordingly.
Burk’s single-mindedness can also be jarring, as when she defines abolitionist and author Frederick Douglass only in terms of his post-Civil War disagreement with several leading suffragettes over whether violence against black men placed their need for voting rights above winning the franchise for women. In doing so, Burk ignores Douglass’s presence at the pioneering women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848, and his early and lifetime support of women’s suffrage. (At his funeral in 1895, Susan B. Anthony read a letter written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton honoring Douglass.)
However, in the same way Douglass drew a line from abolition to women’s rights, and modern-day feminists emulated lessons of the civil rights movement, Burk, in her chapter on affirmative action, does acknowledge women of all races as beneficiaries of policies that expand opportunities.
Part primer, part call to arms, “Your Voice Your Vote” skirts “Schoolhouse Rock!” territory with its lessons on how politics work. (Among the passages that might benefit from being set to song: “Most business in Congress is done through a committee system, meaning that members can’t automatically bring bills to the floor of the House or Senate for a vote.”)
Amid the exhaustive detail and unrelenting sisterhood are valuable lessons for every voter: Take time to know what your candidates stand for, question and prod them beyond bromides and talking points, and hold them accountable.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, has worked at the New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3.