In September 1984, Rep. Mary Rose Oakar, a liberal Democrat from Ohio, took to the floor of the House to support a colleague.
"Mr. Speaker," she said, "as a Catholic and pro-life member of Congress, I am dismayed at a certain bishop's personal attack on Gerry Ferraro." Oakar objected to a single-issue approach to political virtue. Candidates should be evaluated, she added, on a range of issues concerning the human condition, not only abortion.
Mary Rose Oakar, now in her fifth term, knows from her own experience what it is like to be excluded on the basis of a single issue. Because she will not vote for federal funding for abortion, Oakar is punitively overlooked at election time by the National Organization for Women, the National Women's Political Caucus and the Women's Campaign Fund.
Officials of each of these groups tell me that they have a great deal of respect for Oakar and her persistent work for women's issues in the House, but they cannot retreat from the bottom-line qualification for getting money from their political action committees. Yes, they say, the congresswoman supports ERA and practically everything else on their agendas, but a woman's right to abortion is a matter of survival.
Considering that two-thirds of the elderly are poor and a majority of the elderly are women, the congresswoman believes there are other rather vital survival issues. For a while, although she continues to work with the Feminist Establishment on legislation high on their mutual agenda, Oakar initially felt, she told me, "a great sense of sadness" at being put in the back of the feminist bus, for she proudly considers herself a feminist.
"So many issues related to economic security for women and for all peoplare under total assault from the Reagan administration," Oakar says. "Reagan himself is anti-life, once the kid is born. He is opposed to any program that would help a poor child and the child's family. Yet now, when we on the other side especially need all the help we can get, we divide ourselves."
Mary Rose Oakar, not one to stay sad long, has become the first woman member of the House to set up her own PAC to help other candidates. The spirit of the PAC reflects her conviction that women can be truly liberated through such liberation as pay equity, pension reform, banking reform in terms of loans for housing, and other doors to economic security. She has the notion that economic liberation can do wonders to nurture liberation in other areas of one's life. And not only for women.
Accordingly, the congresswoman has set up the Economic Security PAC. Although the focus will largely be on women candidates, men will not be excluded. Nor will anyone be shown the door on the basis of his or her attitude toward abortion, whatever it is. However, should a pro-lifer come calling who cheers on the Reagan way of dealing with the poor and the elderly, that candidate will indeed be turned away.
The Economic Security PAC, moreover, will help candidates for local and state as well as federal office. "We have only 24 women members of the House," Oakar says, "and less than half of them are Democrats. Clearly the way to get more women in Congress is to get more women elected on the local and state level. As of now, women make up only 11 percent of those officeholders."
Women who do not consider being a feminist and being pro-life contradictory -- and there are quite a few -- now have a place to try for political support. So do liberal women candidates who are pro-abortion but do not feel they are compromising their feminist integrity by taking money from a PAC created by a woman who has been blacklisted, so far as support for herself is concerned, by NOW, the National Women's Political Caucus, and the Women's Campaign Fund.
"When I was a city councilwoman in Cleveland," Oakar recalls, "I referred a couple of pregnant kids who came into our storefront to a friend of mine at a health center. She said, 'I told them their only real option was abortion because I couldn't guarantee them full funding, including proper nutrition and medical care, until the baby was born, and I couldn't get them jobs."
Since she has been in Congress, Oakar has introduced legislation every term to provide full-term funding and counseling for pregnant women who want their babies and fear they cannot afford the costs. "It would give poor women an option," she says.
The established women's rights groups, the congresswoman notes, have never supported that legislation, yet they are supposed to be pro-choice.