By MARSHA MERCER
For most of the last century, no more than two women served at the same time in the U.S. Senate.
In the 1980s, women House members were not allowed in the House gym.
After the 1992 election, headline writers broke out the phrase Year of the Woman to describe the vast crowd of women coming to the Senate – six. The phrase annoyed at least one senator.
“Calling 1992 the Year of the Woman makes it sound like the Year of the Caribou or the Year of the Asparagus,” Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., complained at the time. “We’re not a fad, a fancy, or a year.”
Women weren’t a fad, but they’re still a distinct minority in Congress. In January, 20 women will serve in the Senate, 16 Democrats and four Republicans. One in five -- that’s the most women ever in the Senate.
In the House, there will be a record 78 women, about 18 percent of the members. Fifty-eight are Democrats, 20 Republicans. At least three of the new women in the House are in their 30s.
For the first time, women and minorities will outnumber white men among Democrats in the House. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., celebrated the Democratic caucus milestone, saying it would be “the first caucus in the history of civilized government to have a majority of women and minorities.”
That’s impressive, but it’s unclear how having more women and minorities in Congress will affect policy. Republicans still control the House, and the Republican caucus is dominated by white men. Their goal is to shrink the size of government and cut entitlements.
In earlier times, women in Congress worked to avoid being pigeon-holed as interested in “women’s” issues. In fact, when the Women’s Caucus was formed in the House in 1977, “it met with considerable resistance even among women members,” according to a history on the House clerk’s Web page.
Political scientists who have studied women in elective office are divided on whether women have different legislative priorities than men. While some studies find women more likely to support certain family and workplace issues, other studies find no trend.
For one thing, there’s been a blurring of what women’s issues are. Plus, family-work balance, pay equity, education and health care mean different things to different people, whether men or women. Someone’s political party can be more predictive of his or her stand than gender.
While some Republican women in Congress supported certain benefits in the health care overhaul -- such as not allowing health insurance companies to charge women higher premiums than men -- not one Republican, man or woman, voted for final passage of the Affordable Care Act.
“Based on my experience, just because you’re an elected official and a woman, that doesn’t mean you’re going to vote” for women’s issues, Rep. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., says in Madeleine M. Kunin’s “The New Feminist Agenda,” published in April.
As the title suggests, Kunin, who was the first woman governor of Vermont and served as ambassador to Switzerland, is calling for another social revolution ‘’not for the benefit of women alone,” she says, “but for the sake of the family.”
She argues that while women have made great progress in the workplace, the country needs social policies that support families. The United States is the only country in the developed world that fails to offer paid maternity leave or paid sick leave.
A poll of international gender specialists in June ranked the United States the sixth-best country for women -- behind Canada, Germany, Britain, Australia and France. In France, new mothers get 16 weeks of maternity leave at full pay.
The panel, which looked at the G20 developed countries, cited poor access to health care and the debate over reproductive rights for the U.S. rank, the poll by TrustLaw, a legal news service run by Thompson Reuters Foundation, reported.
We’re No. 6? That doesn’t sound right. It’s time for women and men in Congress to support working parents and stand up for families.
No worries about the Year of the Woman or asparagus. Call it the Year of All of Us.
©2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.