By Karen O’Connor*
One need only look to the Declaration of Sentiments adopted by the women in attendance at the Seneca Falls Convention in August 1848 to begin to appreciate how far women in the United States still are from reaching equality in a host of arenas, many of which are dependent on political or legal equality. Although women were granted the franchise in 1920 after decades of struggle, it is only in the past few decades that women have become a political force – at least at the ballot box. Women not only vote more than men, but unmarried women and women of color are much more likely to vote for Democratic candidates. In fact, women were key voters in the successful elections of Presidents Clinton and Obama.
Still, women as a voting bloc were unable to secure the nomination of Hillary Rodham Clinton as the Democratic Party’s nominee. Women as Secretaries of State now appear the norm, yet we seem far away from electing a woman president with no obvious candidates on the horizon. Thus, more efforts must be made to get women elected to the Senate and, perhaps more importantly, state governorships, from which strong presidential candidates often emerge. A stagnant women’s movement must refocus its energies on the executive as well as legislative and judicial branches to develop a stable of candidates and not wait for women to self identify. As research by Fox and Lawless reveals, women are far less likely to perceive of themselves as viable candidates. It is incumbent upon groups including EMILY’s List to up its already commendable efforts to expand this pool.
Women must also be ready to hold the Obama Administration accountable for not only its words but deeds. The Lilly Ledbetter Law and the creation of the President‘s Council on Women and Children were announced with much flourish. Yet, the Ledbetter law could easily be strengthened through broader guidelines and to date, what has the new Council accomplished? While the State Department under the directorship of Secretary Clinton has said that it will make women’s issues a central concern of U.S. foreign policy, what express policies have been changed or new initiatives begun?
Pressure must also be placed on the Obama Administration to appoint a third woman to the Supreme Court should a vacancy occur. The jury is still out on how Justice Sonia Sotomayor will vote on cases of concern to women, especially those involving basic reproductive rights so endanger of limitations by a majority of the Court. With pro-choice Justice Stevens well past retirement age, the Administration must not succumb to a chorus of calls for the nomination of a moderate Justice; Obama was elected as a left of center president and should not apologize for appointing justices that share his views.
*Karen O’Connor is the Jonathan N. Helfat Distinguished Professor of Political Science and the Founder and Director Emeritus of the Women & Politics Institute at American University. She has written extensively about women and the law, women and politics, and American politics, including the best-selling American Government text, American Government: Roots and Reform, 10th ed. (with Larry Sabato).