April 27, 2012

Don’t get mad, get elected.

That’s the pitch we’ve made for more than four decades at the Center for American Women and Politics, asking women from both parties to consider running for office. We have a simple, logical progression in mind: Women who see a policy or situation that raises their ire should channel their energy into candidacies, which would lead to more women in office. Now the 2012 campaign season, with its attacks on access to contraception and its dismal economic climate, has added urgency to the message.

By our tally, 225 women — 145 Democrats and 80 Republicans — have filed to run for the House of Representatives this election cycle, although 12lost their primaries. Seventy more are considered candidates in states where filing is still ahead.

That means we’re on track to beat the previous record of 262 female House candidates set in 2010. And as we wait to see how many women will be on the ballots in the fall elections, we’re also watching for signs that more may be ready to seek office in 2013, 2014 and beyond.

If we’re lucky, 2012 will follow the template set in 1992, a political year similar to this one in many respects. And ideally we won’t see a repeat of the years following 1992, when women’s advances in elected office slowed, then began to level off and even decline. In 2012, women hold 90 seats in Congress, just less than 17 percent, the same number as in 2009. And in the state legislatures, women hold 23.7 percent of seats, down from the peak of 24.5 percent in 2010 and equal to the proportion in 2008.

Like 2012, 1992 was a post-census year, which means that reapportionment and redistricting had created a large number of new or open seats. It was also a presidential election year, when interest in electoral politics increases. Most important, though, it was a year when women realized that their power was limited at the highest levels of government.

That wake-up call had blared when the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on the nomination of Judge Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court and a University of Oklahoma law professor, Anita Hill, appeared reluctantly to testify about the sexual harassment she said she had experienced while working for Thomas. Suddenly, women across the country saw two plain facts on the evening news: The harassment many had experienced was not just an embarrassing personal incident, but a real and serious phenomenon with a name. And the senators hearing testimony about it were all men who didn’t get it.

Those realizations sparked the candidacies that made 1992 the “Year of the Woman.” Women were well positioned in lower-level offices or other visible roles, and after the Thomas-Hill hearings in October 1991, they had adequate time to line up resources and file to run. That year saw the greatest gains to date for women in elective office, with record numbers of candidates and winners at the congressional and state legislative levels.

While women have not been slumbering since 1992, their advances since then have been far smaller. Recent proposals attacking women’s rights — including challenges to contraception coverage, long assumed to be a settled matter — have provided a harsh reminder that female perspectives are still too rare in policymaking circles.

If women were outraged when a House committee examining contraception policy, in the guise of discussing the rights of religious institutions, included an all-male panel at a hearing, they were infuriated when Rush Limbaugh used the occasion to attack Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke, who had hoped to testify until committee leaders deemed her input irrelevant.

Across the political spectrum, women were offended by the suggestion from one powerful political funder that contraception is as simple and inexpensive as an aspirin held between the knees. And on a different issue, they were stunned when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) repealed the state’s law requiring equal pay for equal work. They saw men trivializing and dismissing challenges with which they struggle daily.

It was largely elected women who leapt to respond. These lawmakers, all Democrats, offered a variety of tongue-in-cheek proposals on male reproductive rights to highlight the unfairness of the debate. Georgia state Rep. Yasmin Neal drafted a bill to outlaw most vasectomies because they deprive thousands of children of birth. Minnesota state Rep. Phyllis Kahn and Illinois state Rep. Kelly Cassidy each proposed new restrictions on erectile dysfunction medication. Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner went a step further, insisting that men requesting such medication be required to prove impotency, see a sex therapist and submit to a cardiac stress test. All the bills failed.

But the point was made: Lawmakers, who are mostly men, have attacked core women’s rights issues. And other lawmakers, mostly women, will speak out forcefully when they see policies that unduly burden women. We were reminded that when given the platform of elected office, women stand ready to take action on what they see as distinctive female concerns. Plenty of men care about these issues, too, but it’s most often women who take the lead.

The message resonated for two Democratic Texas women who told us that they filed papers to run for Congress shortly after seeing the House committee’s all-male hearing. A legal assistant and a small-business consultant each decided to campaign to ensure that voices like hers would be represented in politics.

Beyond access to contraception, we’re hearing that high unemployment and concerns about the direction of the country are motivating female candidates as well: A Connecticut entrepreneur deeply worried about the economy is now a Republican congressional candidate. A California Democratic businesswoman and educator who had never been active in politics realized that she could do more to create middle-class jobs by running for Congress.

We’re hearing similar sentiments from women around the country. They reflect how women often think about seeking political office. Recent CAWP research found a gender difference among state legislators: Men were more likely to say they ran for office “because of a long-standing desire to be involved in politics.” Women, in contrast, cited more frequently their “concern about one or more specific policy issues.” It’s not implausible to think that today’s angry women will be next election season’s candidates.

Many of the political developments most troubling to women have come late in the election cycle. Filing deadlines have passed in more than half the states and are coming up fast in the others. And running for office is rarely a snap decision; planning, fundraising and coalition-building all take time. Former Hawaii governor Linda Lingle (R)and Illinois National Guard Lt. Col. Tammy Duckworth (D), 2012 candidates for the U.S. Senate and House, respectively, are vivid examples of how political careers are built through years of hard work, rarely without setbacks.

Fortunately, efforts were already in place to encourage women to run this year. The 2012 Project, a national, nonpartisan campaign of the CAWP to increase the number of women in Congress and state legislatures, has been working with organizations and political women around the country to encourage women to run. All kinds of groups — some partisan, some not — are taking up the banner. Many have never before focused on politics, but they recognize that their own members are the best champions for the causes they support.

If these organizations can keep their momentum, 2012 will be a strong beginning for more women in politics, not the anomaly that 1992 turned out to be.

outlook@washpost.com

Debbie Walsh is director, and Kathy Kleeman is senior communications officer, at the Center for American Women and Politics, part of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.

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