on the radar: Donna Brazile speaks out!
Donna Brazile is a regular contributor to the "Backtalk" section of Ms. Magazine, providing insightful political commentary from an insider's perspective. In addition to contributing to Ms., Brazile is the chair of the Democratic National Committee’s Voting Rights Institute and an adjunct women's studies professor at Georgetown University. She's also the author of Cooking with Grease: Stirring the Pots in American Politics (Simon & Schuster, 2004).
Featured commentaries :
Women Needed to Clean Beltway Mess
Poverty is a Women's Issue
Remember the "Ladies"
Run, Sisters, Run
Washington, D.C., is a loud city, especially in an election year. It’s always full of gossip and
chitchat, but the buzz has been deafening lately.
Some people in town are holding their breath, hoping the
lobbying and corruption scandals involving such figures as
Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff will go away. Others, giddy
like children on Christmas morning, await the partisan gifts
that a jury in Texas or a plea bargained, disgraced lobbyist
There is also much chatter about how women candidates in
2006 could benefit from the recent scandals inside the Beltway.
According to the Center for American Women and Politics,
women are throwing their hats in the ring for major elected
positions in nine-tenths of the Union: 15 women are running
for U.S. Senate, 165 for the U.S. House and 15 for state governorships.
And that’s not even counting those running for
other state offices.
A number of open seats (no incumbent in the running)
beckon women to compete, including Senate seats in Vermont,
Tennessee, Maryland and Minnesota, and governorships in
Massachusetts and Florida. If we follow the adage that “every
open seat is a woman’s seat,” women really do have the poten tial
to make some waves during this election cycle. This is welcome
news for those hoping 2006 will become another “Year
of the Woman.”
But can women candidates capitalize on the Washington
scandals in order to position themselves to win? While there
is support for the theory that political corruption benefits
women candidates, women cannot always assume success in
such a political climate. Take a look at both sides of the historical
Scandal and corruption first brought women into politics around the turn of the 20th century. Fed up with crooked party
bosses and a political system based on patronage and cronyism,
women became a powerful voice for reform. While
society insisted on confining women to the realm of “virtues”
and housecleaning, women reasoned that these skills should
be applied to cleaning up the dirty and corrupt business of
politics. From Jane Addams to Alice Stone Blackwell, courageous
women argued that it was time to instigate “municipal
While women initially succeeded in electoral politics because
of corruption, the latter half of the 20th century has
demonstrated inconsistency in this regard. Watergate, the biggest scandal to rock the Capitol, created no upsurge in
women’s representation, nor did observers claim that women
could run politics differently from their male counterparts.
The nomination of former Rep. Geraldine Ferraro for vice
president in 1984 preceded the Iran-contra scandal. Furthermore,
the number of women in the U.S. Congress rose only
slightly in 1990 after the messy savings and loan ordeal.
However, the number of women candidates rose to new
levels in 1992, on the heels of house banking and post-office
scandals and the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings. It was
no coincidence that dozens of incumbent congressmen did
not seek reelection following the scandals of the early ’90s,
while reapportionment also opened up districts for non-incumbents.
The availability of open seats and newly drawn
districts certainly may have motivated more women candidates
than usual to enter congressional races.
Given the mess inside the Beltway today, women candidates
can once again help clean up government, as they did a
century earlier. But women should win their elections not
simply because they portray the appropriate stereotype for the
given political situation; they should win because they are the
most qualified. It can be just as dangerous to paint all female
candidates as virtuous and “clean” as it is to portray men as
strong and decisive. Feminists should not put a gender on
honesty and integrity; rather, we should encourage women
candidates to stress the theme of positive change.
So, I advise women candidates not only to campaign hard
against the “culture of corruption,” but also to adopt platforms
that include such issues as health care, education, jobs
and the environment. In that way, women can benefit from
the political moment without losing the battle to avoid old
On a personal note, I wish to acknowledge Coretta Scott King, a
terrific mentor and personal friend who, during her life—along
with her recently departed sisters Shirley Chisholm, C. DeLores
Tucker, Molly Yard and Betty Friedan—gave me and so many other women our wings to soar.
The 2005 hurricane season demonstrated that nature wreaks havoc with impartiality. Hurricane Katrina’s dramatic winds destroyed beautiful lakefront resorts, Gulf
Coast mansions and profitable seaside casinos with the
same gale force as those which ravaged shotgun houses
and public housing where some of America’s poorest citizens
While nature may treat us all equally, however, the recent
hurricanes confirmed that society does not. Racial and economic inequalities briefly came to the fore as the
faces of New Orleans’ chronically poor citizens filled our
TV screens, but then those images were too easily brushed
aside when the next news cycle rolled in. Congress made
noise that it was going to investigate the impact of the hurricanes on its Gulf Coast victims, then sadly turned its
attention to other matters.
Since Congress and the Bush administration continue
to ignore the millions of Americans living below the
poverty line, it is essential that the women’s movement
make the eradication of chronic poverty a top priority. We
must have a frank conversation about what it means to be
poor in America and what we can do to alleviate the suffering
of the women and men who work two or three
minimum-wage jobs just to make ends meet.
Women’s voices should lead this debate since the burdens
of poverty fall unevenly on us. Of the 37 million
poor people in this country, 21 million are women. Many
of them head single-parent households, which are four
and a half times more likely to be impoverished than two-parent
In the Gulf Coast region, the poverty gap runs even
deeper. In my hometown of New Orleans, an astonishing
26 percent of women live under the federal poverty line,
nearly double the national average. Louisiana, Mississippi
and Texas—the three states hit hardest during the 2005
hurricane season—rank above the 85th percentile in the
U.S. with respect to women living in poverty.
Many of these women, including some members of my family, lack health insurance, cannot find affordable housing
and cannot pay for the child care that would allow
them to improve their education and find better work.
The Gulf Coast disasters brought to light the struggles poor families face in order to survive; it is now incumbent
upon us to remove the barriers that keep so many people trapped at the bottom of the economic ladder.
An important step toward lessening poverty is to ensure
that women take part in every aspect of rebuilding
the Gulf Coast. Women must move past the disheartening
statistics that foster our identity as victims and instead
become active agents for change. If women take a seat at
the table when decisions are made, we can promote an
agenda that includes fair wages, affordable housing, jobs,
quality and affordable child care, and other policies that
would enable us to work toward a permanent solution
rather than a temporary fix.
Providing a living wage is critical. Since poor families
are hurt when their members go without having basic
needs and standards of care met, we must hold government
accountable for its pledge to promote strong and
And women need more than a temporary raise in
wages—they must be trained for quality jobs that will raise permanent earning potential and continue to keep
them and their families afloat. Too often women are
forced into low-paying jobs because they lack sufficient
skills, and they overlook well-paid occupations traditionally
held by men, such as the construction trades, because
they lack training. Getting women the training they need
to break into higher- paying jobs would interrupt the cycle
The national discussion of chronic poverty must address
the fact that since September 11 this country has focused
attention on eradicating terrorism to the exclusion
of serious domestic threats, such as the lack of affordable
health care. America can do better. We owe it to the victims
of hurricanes Katrina and Rita to once again summon
the nation to eradicate poverty. During this election
season, which will set the stage for the next presidential
contest, we must hold our elected officials accountable.
It’s time we force a conversation about reducing poverty
in America and provide the underpaid and underemployed
with the tools they need to rebuild their lives.
This summer I took the train up to Philadelphia
to lecture at the National Constitution Center. While the exhibits that chronicle our Constitution thoroughly
impressed me, each new artifact served as a reminder
that no one who looked like me—black, female—shaped the document that has done the most to influence
It wasn’t until 1981—194 years after the U.S. Constitution
was drafted—that a woman was finally allowed to
weigh in on the document. The ascendance of Sandra
Day O’Connor to the U.S. Supreme Court marked the
first time a woman could offer formal and lasting opinions
on what the Constitution protects and prohibits for
its citizens. O’Connor has had a mixed legacy as a justice,
but it’s one that firmly paints her as a pivotal voice on issues
of equality, justice and fairness.
Unfortunately, Justice O’Connor will soon end her
tenure. And come October, when the new Supreme
Court term begins, the Court will most probably have
lost half its representation of women. President George W. Bush ignored popular calls—including comments
from his wife, Laura—and nominated a man to fill Justice O’Connor’s seat.
Her absence on the Court will pose a unique disadvantage
for women, as we have lost a swing voter on issues
that matter to women as well as minorities. Consider this:
The Supreme Court relies on a document that did not consider women or racial minorities when it was written.
True, the Framers calculated seemingly genderless boundaries
between private and public, individual and society.
But without a single woman’s opinion weighed, and with Abigail Adams’ call to husband and Founding Father
John to "remember the ladies" scoffed at, it is hard to believe
that the group had full knowledge of what rights and
protections were important to all of its citizens—especially
the female majority.
The Framers gave us guidance on male-oriented issues
such as guns and acceptable punishment, but with no women attending the Constitutional Convention in
Philadelphia, issues of particular concern to women,
such as reproductive rights and what constitutes equal
protection under the law, weren’t mentioned. That’s why they’ve been left up to continuous interpretation for
more than 200 years—and that’s why, unquestionably,women and minorities must be on the Supreme Court
when such discussions take place.
As a black woman, I can take some comfort that women
will not be completely forgotten, because the Court is still
left with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But some of us are
familiar with the pressure than can be placed on an individual when she is the lone one (woman, minority) in the
company of men. Often, we are challenged to give our
unique insights about issues because of our special life experiences.
With O’Connor, the Court had not only a
smart and intelligent woman, but the perspective of someone
who worked in the political arena as an elected official,
accountable to all citizens.
Justice O’Connor fully recognized the importance of
women serving in the judiciary. When she heard of Bush’s new nominee she replied that Judge John Roberts was “good in every way, except he’s not a woman.” While the
president purportedly cast a wide net to review myriad
candidates, he decided that a white male was most qualified
for the job. What a missed opportunity.
From what we know about Judge Roberts’ record on the District Court of Appeals, he’s no Sandra Day O’Connor.
His stated views on choice, affirmative action and other
civil rights issues appear to cast him in the mode of the
man he once clerked for, Chief Justice Rehnquist, or even
as ultraconservative as justices Scalia and Thomas. There’s
no question that every feminist must call upon the U.S.
Senate to do its homework before confirming Judge
Roberts to the Supreme Court.
At this point, all we can hope for—outside of waiting for
the next election—is to see if the president will give serious
consideration to selecting a woman or racial minority in the
future. Don’t expect any judge elected by this conservative
president to find someone agreeable to us on all the issues.
Let’s just hope the next nominee has an open mind and is willing, like O’Connor, to help steer America down the path
of equal rights, opportunity and freedom for all citizens.
Psssst… Mr. President, next time listen to your wife.
1992 was a historic year in American politics. A record number of women decided to take the plunge and pursue careers in public service, and guess what? Many of them won! Twenty-four women were elected to
the U.S. House of Representatives and six women were
elected to the last bastion of the “old boys’ network,” the
Today, women hold a record 80 seats in the House and
Senate, but we shouldn’t be satisfied: That’s only 15 per cent
of all congressional seats. Women do marginally better
in state legislatures (22.5 percent of the seats), yet
fewer women are running for state legislative office than
did 13 years ago, and the percentage of women holding
statewide elected office—such as governors, attorneys
general and state treasurers—has dropped since 1999.
The United States has the dubious distinction of being
just 59th in the world in terms of women’s representation
With election seasons on the horizon for 2006 and
2008, and recent polls indicating that more Americans
are willing to elect women to higher office, it’s time to get
busy recruiting more women to run. And that means getting
more women engaged in politics—as voters, candidates
and campaign operatives.
Politics has always been one of my passions. I’ll never
forget the joy of my first political campaign, at the age of
9. After the death of Martin Luther King Jr., the
grownups wanted to do something to continue his legacy
of civil and voting rights. So, they started voter education
and registration in my hometown of Kenner, La. I wanted
to be a civil rights worker and this was an opportunity
to sign up voters by going door to door.
We did not have computerized voter files or the “techno
gizmo” gadgets, but we had a strong desire to improve conditions in our community. From sunrise to sunset, my
recruits and I went from house to house to see if the
grownups were registered to vote. By the time our mayoral
and city council candidates (including a black woman) were elected, I was well on my way to a career in
In 2006, it’s time to go knocking on doors to elect
women. It’s time we release the women’s elevator of success
that has been firmly stuck in the political lobby, time
to permanently change the face of American politics.
My friend Paula Xanthopoulou, a savvy, courageous political
consultant who was a leading strategist for Carol
Moseley Braun (former presidential candidate and the first
black woman to serve in the U.S. Senate) believes that “Every
open seat is a woman’s seat.” I have a minor amendment: Every open seat should provide an opportunity for both major
political parties to back strong women candidates.
If you want to be a candidate yourself, here’s a simple
suggestion from Emerge (www.emerge.org), a political leadership
training program for women in California:
Start a club or join an existing network. Women are not
like men; they do not self-nominate or feel comfortable
being labeled as “ambitious.” It helps to be surrounded by
a group of women who are interested in running themselves.
Together, you can provide yourselves with the necessary
skills, information and tools to allow you to
become more confident to seek public office.
As voters, women must begin to realize the connection between politics and their lives—between politics and
schools, politics and health care, politics and job creation.
As an ancient Greek philosopher once said: “Just because
you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics
won’t take an interest in you.”
It’s time we take an avid interest in politics to strengthen
our democracy, protect the gains we have made and go
the extra mile so our children will not have to continue
fighting old, bitter, divisive battles.
2006 is our wake-up call. Are you ready to answer it?
For more information on running for office or supporting women candidates, visit the following websites:
National Women’s Political Caucus, www.nwpc.org; The Future PAC, www.thefuturepac.com; Center for Women and Politics, www.cawp.rutgers.edu; EMILY’s List, http://emilyslist.org; Women’s Campaign Fund, www.wcfonline.org; Business and Professional Women/USA, www.bpwusa.org; The WISH List, www.thewishlist.org.