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On the radar: The Feminist Game Plan

The Feminist Game Plan

"Labor to Push Agenda in Congress It Helped Elect,"  declared The Washington Post  last week in reporting that labor leaders were meeting to set an ambitious agenda for the Democrats. They're not the only ones. Women's groups held a mini-summit over the weekend, hammering out short-term goals and long-term wish lists for the upcoming session. But the tone was more about helping the new leadership succeed than "they owe us." Democrats certainly do owe their victory to women-females made the difference in every seat that turned over. If men had been the only voters, we'd still be living with Republican majorities in both houses.

Not surprisingly, the economic agenda was front and center, with raising the minimum wage the number one priority. Adult women make up the majority of minimum wage workers, and that's a big factor in the abysmal poverty rates of U.S. kids. New House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi has a raise from $5.15 to $7.25 on the fast track for the "First 100 Hours," so there won't be the kind of push-pull we saw in the early '90s before the Republican takeover. Then, groups wanted action on tougher legislation to close the gender pay gap, but the Democratic majority was too timid to even schedule hearings on anything so "controversial."

It is tempting to buy the illusion of unlimited possibilities due to the president's low approval numbers combined with loss of Republican control at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. But women have been suckered by too much optimism before, and know this time that President Bush is not going to roll over. Still, advocates are eager to put the new Congress on record with votes that show their true commitment (or not) to core issues, even if the Decider would ultimately use the veto. They want up-or-down votes on two other priorities: paid sick leave and modest funding for birth control education. Seven days of employer-paid sick leave, prorated for part-time workers, won't cost the government anything. It is hugely popular with the public, so there's no reason not bring it to the floor in short order. Similarly, close to 90 percent of the public, Democrats and Republicans alike, want teenagers to know about birth control-along with the benefits of abstinence until marriage that the administration has pushed for six years. If the right wing is serious about reducing abortions, this is the way to do it, and advocates want them to be put on the spot before they face voters in 2008.

Not all of the mini-summit discussion was about passing bills. With oversight now in the hands of friends, women want some answers that have been impossible to get under Republican rule. Front and center-women's security in Afghanistan and Iraq due to ascendancy of anti-woman warlords in both countries. Despite President Bush's blustering to the contrary, females in Iraq have not been "liberated." They are afraid to leave their homes and have lost the ability to hold the jobs they had under Saddam Hussein. In Afghanistan, girls' schools are being burned almost daily and women are back in the burqa and living in fear of their lives under an increasingly strong Taliban re-emergence. An airing on Capitol Hill before the right committees can help ensure
women's rights aren't completely sacrificed in any brokered pullout agreements.

Groups know the Bushies are not going to let up on harmful administrative decisions that fly under the radar and have long-term implications. So getting Congress to stop destruction of the civil rights enforcement apparatus at the Departments of Justice and Education is a short-term priority, along with halting the dismantling of women's programs at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Looking at the longer-term agenda, one item is less on a wish list than an "insist list." Cordiality between women's groups and the new Congress could come to an abrupt halt at the Supreme Court door if there is another vacancy. The Roberts and Alito confirmations were clear losses for women's employment rights. With abortion rights on the chopping block next, it will be time for women's advocates to draw a line in the sand. They will insist that Democrats strengthen their spines (there's no excuse now) and just say no to an anti-choice nominee, even if she-and it ought to be a she-is good on labor, good on the environment, and good on civil rights.

Will the Democrats deliver for women, even on this modest agenda? Two years from now we should know whether women's loyalty at the polls in 2006 paid off, or whether Lucy has missed the football once again.

Martha Burk is the Money editor for Ms, and author of Cult of Power: Sex Discrimination in the Workplace and What Can Be Done About It.

This column originally appeared at TomPaine.com.