Updating Women's Politics

HARRIETT WOODS

January 26, 1992|By HARRIETT WOODS

The women's movement in this country is out of date -- not because it has gotten too far ahead, but because it is too far behind. Women's lives, choices and challenges have changed, and it's past time for the message and strategies to change as well.

New economic realities like the two-income household have made family leave and child care into majority concerns. The majority of women have made it clear that they want abortion to remain a legal option. The bold women's agenda of the 1960s and '70s is now mainstream.

This should have changed the way women's groups operate. When you are in the majority, your primary job should no longer be staging media events to get attention, or even lobbying within the Washington beltway; it should be mobilizing your majority into political muscle so that you can win elections and put women themselves where the decisions are made.

The challenge for the women's movement is to stop allowing itself to be painted as "on the fringes" and to start helping mainstream women make the connections between their everyday lives and the electoral process. The central issue for women everywhere should be: Who makes the decisions? When a majority agrees on an agenda, and it still doesn't happen, it's time for some self-examination.

In the '70s, women battled for opportunity and to create choices: A woman could be a legal assistant or a lawyer; she could take a salaried job or stay at home; she could work on a political campaign or be the candidate. Today, those choices are open to women, but they're discovering that they may not be able to exercise them.

The ultimate goals remain unattained -- a meaningful life, family security, a just society. Women's stressed and stretched lives force them to balance jobs, household management, child and elder care without adequate support systems. What women seek is a practical way to get some space and control in their lives.

They often don't have the time or the self-confidence to see that their own actions can bring about change. In order to tap that potential, the women's movement must first listen to their urgent economic and social concerns. It must reach out beyond the traditional membership to women in the workplace and in the neighborhoods, to business owners and to the oppressed female underclass -- nurse's aides, fast-food workers, under-skilled single mothers struggling to maintain families without adequate health insurance or child care.

The spontaneous wave of protest that washed over the Senate in objection to the handling of the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas sexual harassment charges revealed an underlying frustration, anger and sense of powerlessness among women who never before had spoken out politically.

That was a lesson for the women's movement as well as for senators from both sides of the aisle. It wasn't the lesson the administration later tried to sell -- that mainstream women don't share the views of women leaders. Clearly they do. Women we have never reached, women who may never turn up for a rally or attend a meeting, are looking for a connection. It is our job to turn their anger into meaningful action.

Women have made great political gains at the state and local level in the past 20 years, but they still are shockingly underrepresented. They look at government and see too few of their own faces reflected back. A continuing gender gap demonstrates that women voters do have different priorities; the absence of their ideas, talents and problem-solving skills is a loss to all those -- men as well as women -- who want more responsive and effective government.

Women must take risks, raise money, build coalitions and support networks and do the unglamorous work that gets out the vote. If women's groups focused their energies and dollars on electing women instead of on meetings and marches, they would see their own life experiences influencing decisions.

There is a rich diversity among women's organizations. Some seek the cameras and the cutting edge of issues, some help women candidates, others work on research to pass laws and win court cases. Each group has its role to play, but the women's movement must use the new majority focus, not the strident, outdated style of the past.

It is essential that women's groups listen to where women are today and respond in their messages and their strategies. As women see their own needs included and are offered practical partnerships that fit their lives, they will not just join in raising their voices, they will redesign the choir.

Harriett Woods, a former lieutenant governor of Missouri, is president of the National Women's Political Caucus. She wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.

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