Eleanor Smeal, the outgoing president of the National Organization for Women, points to the Philippines and to Norway and she says she is inspired. She wants other American women to feel the same way and to take action. Smeal is tired or hearing about the feminization of poverty. She's talking now about the feminization of power.
"Cory Aquino and the Filipino women and men led a bloodless revolution against all odds," Smeal said recently in a speech at the National Press Club. "And the housewife is now the president of that struggling democracy. In Norway, where there was an economic decline, a woman is prime minister and 36 percent of the Parliament are women because the people wanted a national house-cleaning.
"It's time for women -- for feminists -- to lead, not to be confined to what others have labeled women's issues, but to spread out on a whole range of interconnected issues affecting our lives -- our nation -- yes, our world. It's time to expand the vision of the feminist movement and to change the national debate.
"We've been cheerleaders. It's time for the cheerleaders to run themselves."
Smeal is forming the Fund for the Feminist Majority, which will work with NOW and other women's organizations, to recruit women to run for Congress. She calls it "flooding the ticket," and it was a strategy that was stunningly successful in Florida after that state killed the Equal Rights Amendment. In 1982, a month after the state Senate defeated the ERA, NOW and other groups recruited 20 women to run for state Senate seats. "We didn't think most could win. Nine women were elected to the Senate. They were newcomers. They carried the day."
The next election, by her calculations, is going to produce a window of opportunity for electing new people to Congress and defeating incumbents -- who have more than a 90 percent chance of reelection in a normal election year. The post-Watergate election of 1974 produced 103 new members of Congress, the most since 1949, she says. She thinks the Iran-contra scandal may produce the same public demand for change. If that does happen in 1989, and half the new people elected are feminist women, by her calculations it would triple the number of women in Congress -- to 69.
Ask any progressive women representatives if that would make a difference and they will tell you yes, very loudly. There would be many more women paying attention not only to legislation helping women and children, but many more voices asking different kinds of questions about foreign policy and defense spending. The majority of the population -- which is female -- would have a great deal more to say about how the nation's resources are allocated and how its public policies are formulated.
It is precisely this different voice that Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) represents in her current consideration of a presidential race. Schroeder, first elected to Congress in 1972, is the dean of women and a senior member of the House Armed Services and Judiciary committees. She is expected to announce by September where she will enter the presidential primaries. She was committed to Gary Hart until he dropped out, so she faces a late start and the big question of whether she can raise the necessary funds.
Ruth Mandel, director of the Center for the American Woman and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, says Schroeder's exploration of a candidacy is "an exciting step down a road that women have been moving for the past 15 years but very few of them have gotten as far down the road as Pat Schroeder has, and very few women are in a position to consider the top spot in electoral politics.
"Pat Schroeder is taking a very important step for American women by exploring the race for that position. I think she will be an inspiration to many women to become more involved in politics. Each time a pioneer steps forward in this way, she becomes a beacon to other women who haven't considered political life. From what I can tell, and it's very early, people's response is they may not have made up their minds yet about who they will vote for, but they do want her to run. That's the sense I get, especially from women. They say, 'I'd like her to run.' They'd feel proud, interested and respectful of her candidacy."
Schroeder and Smeal are both talking about women using the electoral process to share power. They are talking about women taking the next step, which is to think of themselves as political leaders and as candidates. Schroeder is doing it, and she should be an inspiration to many more.