Women on the Hill

Four days before the election, The New York Times ran a front page story declaring that female voters held the key to the Senate race in Virginia between George Allen and James Webb. That women control the majority of votes in this country is not new, nor is the fact that there has long been a gender gap, with women generally favoring Democrats. What was new about this race was that neither candidate was a particular friend of the women who held the balance of power in the electorate.

Allen is a redneck good-ol'-boy anti-choicer, and Webb is a white male women-don't-belong-in-the-military warrior who came late to the Democratic Party because he opposed Bush on Iraq. While his website says he "supports Roe v. Wade" without spelling out what that means (more restrictions? more anti-choice judges?), he campaigned almost exclusively with men at his side, and he defined "women's issues"; in terms of kids and families. So while women clearly went for Webb, according to exit polls, if his winning total holds up in an expected recount it's unclear what women actually won.

Female voters faced the same non-choice in Pennsylvania, where the Democratic party forced women's-rights supporter former State Treasurer Barbara Hafer out of the race early, clearing the field for anti-abortion Bob Casey. Casey defeated mad-dog Rick Santorum, but will women really be better off? With both candidates against abortion rights, the race may have looked like a wash for women. But I'd call it a net loss, because the Casey victory will embolden the boys in charge of the Democratic party to field more anti-abortion candidates in the future. Even if the Democrats control the Senate, with friends like Casey, and another Supreme Court vacancy likely before President Bush leaves office, do women need enemies?

Some good news for women is that new female Democrats will be joining the male majority on Capitol Hill. In the House of Representatives, among the 47 most competitive House races this year, 18 featured female candidates. Democrats are also celebrating the addition of two more female Senators: Amy Klobuchar, who won the seat held by retiring Democrat Mark Dayton in Minnesota, and Claire McCaskill's unseating of Republican Senator Jim Talent in Missouri. This means that there will be 16 women in the Senate come January, a new record. Historically, Democratic women have been more inclined to hold the line in keeping both chambers from the worst excesses on funding cuts for programs benefiting women and children.

But did women win anything besides staving off more cuts in the next Congress? Yes and no.

Even with the turnover and the first woman in history as speaker, Democratic men will still be firmly in control of all major committee chairs in the House, so a few extra female troops won't hurt in setting priorities. Working women will benefit from a federal raise in the minimum wage, sure to pass now that Democrats are in control. With Bush bazooked by the election results, his major domestic priority -- privatizing Social Security, the backbone of women's retirement -- will be off the table. But equal pay, which has been near the top of women's lists of concerns for years, was mentioned by few if any candidates this year, and won't likely see the light of day even with a phalanx of new Democrats. A handful did express support for family and medical leave where their opponents had voted against it in the first place, but stepping across the line and advocating for paid leave such as that found in Europe was too much of a challenge.

According to a recent poll by the National Council for Research on Women, candidates who favored bringing the troops home from Iraq had a nearly three to one advantage among women voters than candidates who favored keeping the troops deployed (59 percent to 21 percent). In close Senate races in Arizona, Connecticut, Missouri, Montana, Maryland, Ohio, Tennessee and Virginia, there was a clear choice between the killing fields and getting out of Iraq. Pro-war candidates won three of those races, producing a mixed bag for female voters. A number of House contests also turned on the war. In one of the most hard-fought contests, pro-war, pro-Bush New Mexico incumbent Heather Wilson was in a deadlock with challenger Patricia Madrid, who hammered her opponent with ads in the last days showing Wilson repeating "stay the course" over and over. Madrid was within 1,300 votes of defeating Wilson early Wednesday. But in the Illinois contest to replace retiring ultra-conservative Henry Hyde, Iraq veteran Tammy Duckworth was defeated by about two percentage points.

Looking at ballot initiatives affecting women most directly, there were clear gains on the minimum wage; a loss in Michigan, where voters banned affirmative action, and a huge victory on abortion rights in South Dakota. The majority of minimum wage workers are adult females, and hikes in state minimums were on the ballot in six states (Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nevada and Ohio). All of them passed. That will create additional pressure for the federal hike the Democrats have promised sooner rather than later.

The South Dakota vote striking down the state's draconian abortion ban -- no exceptions for rape, incest or health of the woman -- has implications far beyond its borders, and will have repercussions for years to come. Had the South Dakota law stood up, anti-choice majorities with governors on their side in 18 additional states likely would have been emboldened to follow suit. An additional nine states have pre-Roe bans on the books that will now be held off a little longer.

The final scorecard? As they say in football, you win some, you lose some. Overall, Tuesday was a win. But how the game is played on progress for women in the next two years will tell the tale.

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