A Feminist Lens on the New Congress

With the midterm elections now several days behind us, we can assess what the new U.S. Congress  looks like for women in general and for progressive, pro-choice feminists in particular.

There will be at least 85 voting women members of Congress in January. Depending on how five undecided races turn out (four in the House, one–Lisa Murkowski of Alaska–in the Senate), the percentage of women in Congress will either remain the same or, at the most, go down by about 1.5 percent. Considering that the current percentage is 17 percent women in the Senate and about 15 percent women in the House, obviously there’s still a long way to go towards gender equity.

–There will be eight new Republican women in the House and half as many new Democratic women. The Republican newcomers are Martha Roby (Ala.), Sandy Adams (Fla.), Vicky Hartzler (Mo.), Nan Hayworth (N.Y.), Renee Ellmers (N.C.), Christy Noem (S.D.), Diane Black (Tenn.)  and Jaime Herrera (Wash.). Just one, Herrera, is a woman of color. On the other hand, the four Democratic newcomers are all women of color: Terri Sewell (Ala.), Karen Bass (Calif.), Colleen Hanabusa (Ha.) Frederica Wilson (Fla.).

–We lost nine Democratic House members, eight of whom strongly supported reproductive  rights. Sad goodbyes to Ann Kirkpatrick (Ariz.), Betsy Markey (Colo.), Suzanne Kosmas (Fla.), Debbie Halvorson (Ill.), Dina Titus (Nev.), Carol Shea-Porter (N.H.), Mary Jo Kilroy (Oh.) and Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (S.D.).  Pennsylvania’s anti-abortion Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper, who also lost,  cosponsored the Stupak-Pitts amendment and was then vilified in Republican ads for supporting Obama’s health-care reform.

–We lost one pro-choice incumbent in the Senate and added an anti-choice woman. Democrat Blanche Lincoln (Ariz.), who was generally pro-choice but voted to outlaw late-term abortions, lost her seat, while the only woman newcomer to the Senate–Palin-supported Republican Kelly Ayotte (N.H.)–strongly opposes reproductive choice.

–The biggest loss to feminists  is the pro-choice House Democratic leadership team. Unquestionably, we’ll miss Nancy Pelosi in her pioneering role as the first woman House Speaker, along with her pro-choice team of Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.), Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.) and Assistant to the Speaker Chris Van Hollen (Md.). Replacing them  will be the virulently anti-reproductive-rights Republican leadership team of John Boehner (Oh.), Eric Cantor (Va.), Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), Mike Pence (Ind.) and Pete Sessions (Tex.).

–Thirteen anti-choice Democrats were defeated by anti-choice Republicans. And 24 House Democrats who lost had voted yes on the Stupak/Pitts Amendment. (We hope this suggests that Democrats are better off putting forth strong pro-choice candidates, since the anti-choice ones don’t have deep support anyway.)

–We won’t miss three powerful anti-choice Democratic House chairs who lost or retired. They are Ike Skelton (Mo.), chair of the House Armed Services Committee; the retired David Obey (Wisc.), chair of the House Appropriations Committee; and James Oberstar (Minn.), chair of the Committee of Transportation and Infrastructure. Obey insisted on inserting funding for abstinence-only programs to match funding for comprehensive family planning programs in the House appropriations bills; Skelton fought the ERA extension in the late 1970s.

–Bye bye, Blue Dogs. While certain conservative Republicans obviously fared well in the election, conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats were, as a whole, trounced. The Blue Dog caucus lost nearly half its membership–26 of 54, including two of its four co-chairs. The Progressive Caucus, meanwhile, is likely to grow beyond its current public membership of 84.

Stay tuned for more analysis.

Thanks to Eleanor Smeal and the Feminist Majority for the analysis; for more, see here.

Pro Choice protester Photo from Flickr user Jenn Farr under Creative Commons 3.0.

About

Michele Kort is senior editor of Ms. She is the author of Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro and coeditor (with Audrey Bilger) of Here Come the Brides: Reflections on Lesbian Love and Marriage.