The U.S. Senate: Front Line in the War on Women

By Jamie Stiehm

March 8, 2012 5 min read

The Zeitgeist goddess awakened from her winter slumber to ride the March winds of history. After all, it's women's history month.

First stop: the Senate, in a fine mess. Then she'll take a hard look at Rick Santorum, the fighter who resembles Rocky. At day's end, she'll suggest some strategy to the president.

Here in Washington, the news fell like rain: Republican moderate Olympia Snowe of Maine is leaving at the end of this cycle, taking her precious pro-choice vote with her. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, is also retiring. One Democrat, Missouri's Claire McCaskill, is in a tough re-election race, and five others are facing voters again this fall. By the numbers, the Senate stands to lose a few women lawmakers from its present historic high of 17.

Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., the Senate's senior woman, reassured the visitor, "We hope to gain more." Five first-time women candidates, including Elizabeth Warren, are engaged in competitive races, she said. Two are in Massachusetts and Wisconsin, traditionally blue states.

The chemistry of the august body changes with each member's entrance and exit, so keep your eyes on a prize: representation of women in Congress. The stakes are as high as war, peace and domestic tranquility, which has gone missing.

The "Year of the Woman" in 1992 was fueled by female ire at the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings. It's worth charting social progress since. Then there were two women senators, a visual that shocked the nation during the roll call vote. His nomination passed 52-48 against a troubled sea of ties. In government, it makes a difference to be in the room.

As the Zeit-goddess noted on her Capitol fly-by, four states have two women senators: California, Maine, Washington and New Hampshire. Twelve of the current 17 women are Democrats; five are Republicans. That's progress since 1992 — and certainly since 1922, when the first woman senator, Rebecca Felton of Georgia, served for one day. For decades, the Senate was called "The Plantation" for its predominance of white Southern men ("bulls") lording over key committees. It was a nice place to grow old.

All sides say the polarized climate in the Senate chamber today is no picnic. The political "war on women" — and girls — is being waged right under democracy's dome.

Case in point: a vote to let employers decide (on personal grounds) not to provide contraception coverage in health insurance plans. This was barely voted down, 51-48. Snowe was the lone Republican to join Democrats in defeating Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt's amendment to the highway bill (giving new meaning to "my way or the highway").

Watching in the wings, the Zeit-goddess was not thrilled with the bill's blunt force on women's health and human rights. In fact, it was just another day, just another way to contest President Obama's health care reform act, which will make birth control freely available.

Last she checked, reproductive rights are grounded in privacy, dignity and self-determination. The Supreme Court handed down the law in 1973. She asked the question we should all be asking: Why are we as a society still stuck on this subject?

Republican Rick Santorum lost his Senate seat in 2006 because he was too extreme for Pennsylvania voters on social issues. Yet he remains a presidential contender. The Zeit-goddess is piqued: Since when do ousted senators run for president? In Santorum's perfect world, victims of rape and incest would be forced to carry pregnancies to term.

Come November, America's pro-choice majority may feel the nation has regressed, depending upon how the "war on women" plays out. Clearly, it's a close call.

Obama would be wise to start energizing voters on the same turf from the other side of the fence. He needs us to make the margin of difference in toss-up states.

The Republican Party has left choice behind. Last word from the winds: The Senate is the front line in the war on women.

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.

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