OTI Online
Spring 1996

E l e c t i o n ' 9 6 :

The "Year of the Woman" did so make a difference.

Electing women to Congress matters. All those women sent to Washington in 1992 -- the highly touted "Year of the Woman" -- did make a difference, and not just in how they voted.

A study by the Center for the American Woman and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, shows a significant gender gap in votes on key issues, especially among Republicans. But it also found that the presence of more women helped expand the issues on the agenda of the last Congress, the 103rd, and to shape legislation. What's more, the women advanced a collective agenda by working through their bipartisan caucus and using committee assignments to advantage.

In 1992, women almost doubled their presence in the House of Representatives -- from 28 to 47 -- and went from two women in the Senate to six. They were beneficiaries of a harmonic convergence of the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings, open seats created by reapportionment (and resignations of members of Congress who didn't want to run in reconfigured districts), a solid base of female candidates who had paid their dues in state and local offices, and the emergence of EMILY's List as a big-bucks player.

The number of women elected provided an "unprecedented opportunity to conduct important research in the living laboratory of Congress," says Ruth B. Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers, CAWP's parent organization, and one author of the study. Researchers charted women's impact on legislation in areas including women's health, abortion, health-care reform, and the crime bill.

In voting, the study found, for example, that 67 percent of Republican women backed the Brady gun control bill, while only 30 percent of GOP men did, 58 percent of Republican women -- but only 19 percent of men -- voted to ban assault weapons, and 50 percent of the party's women opposed the Hyde Amendment to outlaw federal payments for virtually all abortions for poor women, versus 6 percent of the men. Democrats also had a gender gap in major votes -- specifically when a higher percentage of women than men supported the assault weapons ban and opposed a version of the Clinton Administration's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays and lesbians in the military. But the gap rarely yawned as large as in the GOP.

However, "The voting patterns of women in Congress tell only a small part of the story about women's impact," the study says. Congresswomen also "added issues to the Congressional agenda that had rarely, if ever, been addressed."

Washington is a power town and "when people come to Washington, they want to get into power issues," says Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), dean of the congressional women, who is retiring at the end of this term. Head Start and the Family Medical Leave Act, for example, are not big power issues. Having a group of women moving these issues raised their priority, Schroeder added.

Women's health concerns were a prime example. Schroeder said she had been appalled to discover how little health research had been done with women as subjects or on diseases that particularly affect women, such as breast cancer. The National Institute of Health (NIH) "didn't even use female rats," she quipped. Operating across party lines, the Congresswomen won increases in funding for breast cancer research and other women's health issues. Helping the process along: the presence for the first time of four women on the Labor, Health, and Human Services Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee.

What the study doesn't say is that it also matters what political philosophies are espoused by those women. The gap that existed between the votes of GOP women and men is no longer as great and the teamwork demonstrated in the 103rd Congress clearly has been missing in the 104th, which has attacked programs that benefit women and children. "I wish I could say that if we had more women, that would make a difference today," says Schroeder. "We have some wolves in designer clothing," What no study can forecast, of course, is when this kind of critical mass of progressive women legislators will coalesce again. (--K.M.)

See also:

Election '96: Running Scared

10 Women to Watch in '96 by Kay Mills.

Kay Mills, a California journalist, is author of From Pocahontas to Power Suits: Everything You Need to Know About Women's History in America (Plume) and This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (NAL/Dutton).

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