Putting women and children first

March 31, 1995|By Cokie & Steven V. Roberts

DOES IT make any difference when women are elected to Congress? That's a question we get asked all the time.

Something that recently happened in the House may be instructive. Republican women used their newfound numbers -- there are now 17 of them -- to convince their leadership to change the welfare bill to benefit single mothers. New Jersey's Marie Roukema, now the senior Republican woman in the House, has been pushing for years for stricter federal enforcement of laws requiring absent parents (90 percent of them fathers) to support their children. This year she got some unexpected help from President Clinton who announced his endorsement of something she had long espoused -- taking away drivers and professional licenses from people who haven't paid child support. Once the Republican women put the spotlight on the difficulties women have collecting child support, Republican men began to speak up. Jim Nussle of Iowa said he was ready to abandon his commitment to states' rights on this issue, to allow for a federal role in enforcing the payment of support because: "I have a deadbeat father I have never met. I don't want to have anybody else go through it."

It's that kind of personal experience that can make a difference in a legislative body. And women make a difference because they bring a set of personal experiences to the debate that are simply not the same as those of their male colleagues. We saw that in our own family. When Lindy Boggs, our mother and mother-in-law, was elected to Congress in 1973 after Rep. Hale Boggs was lost in an airplane over Alaska, her female friends had told her of the insult of losing personal credit after the injury of losing a husband to death or divorce. So, from her seat on the Banking and Currency Committee, when she learned that an anti-discrimination in lending bill did nothing for women, she hurriedly did something about it. To the legislation banning the practice of refusing credit on the basis of race, religion or national origin she penned in the words, "or sex or marital status" and sweetly told her colleagues that she was sure the omission had been a mistake. With some embarrassment they agreed, and equal credit became law.

A woman was in the right place at the right time and it made a difference for women all over America.

Almost every congresswoman who's been in Washington for any VTC length of time tells some similar story. No matter where they fall on the ideological spectrum women in Congress find that they bring issues affecting women and children into any room with them. Sometimes they've been able to work across party lines, as they did to increase funding for breast cancer research, but it's been Democratic women who've carried most of the water because they've had access to the men in power. Now, as the welfare debate shows, Republican women are more than ready to pick up the burden. In addition to the child support enforcement amendment, the congresswomen consciously came together on the House floor to push for and pass increased funding for child care. Women understand when something disproportionately affects women, that's why Rep. Connie Morella, R-Maryland, introduced legislation to make it illegal for insurance companies to deny coverage to victims of domestic violence.

When you get together with these congresswomen they talk of the problems of American families in personal terms. Their solutions might be shaped by the ideological framework of their politics, but they're not interested in sweeping the concerns of child and elder care, family leave, health care and domestic violence under the rug. These women often not only see the predicaments, but also they feel them. And the anecdotes they tell about their own lives and those of the women all over the country who feel free to call on someone else of their sex even if she represents another district.

That's true at every level of government. As the lawmakers in Washington dispatch federal programs to the state legislatures, you can be sure that it will be the women in those assemblies who will be looking after the children. Will they make a difference? You bet.

Cokie Roberts is an ABC News commentator. Steven V. Roberts is a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report.

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