11.20.09

Nancy Pelosi, Feminist Nightmare

The House Speaker pushed the Stupak amendment through—then moved to block the woman bidding for Ted Kennedy's Senate seat. Amy Siskind on how the most powerful woman in politics betrays the sisterhood.

Is there an extra seat on Air Force One? Given women’s fury last week over the Stupak amendment, Speaker Nancy Pelosi should have hitched a ride with Obama out of town.

But she did not. Speaker Pelosi continued along unfazed. After taking away insurance funding for reproductive rights, she went off to Massachusetts. There, Pelosi stopped by to endorse a man running against state Attorney General Martha Coakley, an immensely qualified Democratic candidate vying to become that state’s first female senator in the special election to replace the late Ted Kennedy. Pelosi’s not much for helping women in her party, even ones with similar views on policy, with their bids for historical firsts.

A powerful woman can in fact be an enemy to women.

How did the most powerful woman in politics become a feminist nightmare? A major element in our battle for equality is getting women into positions of power. The hope is that these leaders, once in place, would promote women’s issues and encourage the next generation of women leaders. Speaker Pelosi reveals a flaw in feminist thinking: There are exceptions. A powerful woman can in fact be an enemy to women.

It’s odd that Pelosi would turn on women. Her congressional district is amongst the safest in the country, so she has a certain freedom to pursue her desired agenda. Is it because she rose to power via a traditionally male path? Her father was a U.S. congressman and mayor of Baltimore who helped get her internships and taught her the skill of keeping lists while maintaining a favor file. Perhaps Pelosi’s dereliction on women’s issues reveals something more dire: that women as a constituency have lost their bargaining power. Why did Pelosi do it? Because she can. There seems to be negligible political cost in selling out women and women’s issues.

But the Stupak amendment could well change that. For many women, the amendment should mark an end to an era of complacency. Unlike our mild awakening in 2008, conceived out of the awareness of rampant sexism—the Stupak amendment is more of an electric jolt, a call to arms.

Max Blumenthal: Gillibrand Targets the Stupak AmendmentBut what women must grasp here is that Stupak is not just about reproductive rights. It’s so much deeper than a single issue. The passage of the amendment is a testimonial to the erosion of women’s power in this country. It’s a reminder that all women, regardless of party affiliation, are still second-class citizens. Women still make 77 cents of what men make; still suffer gender-based assault at escalating rates; and still occupy only 1 in 6 leadership spots in government, corporate America, and academia. These issues impact all women; yet, our situation is not improving. And in fact, as the Stupak amendment reveals, women are actually moving backward.

Should we be alarmed? Absolutely. Numerous aspects of women’s safety and well-being are under assault. Just this week, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, a federal entity, presented its findings on mammograms, which could impact the ability of women under 50 to get insurance coverage for breast exams. Many voices, including the American Cancer Society, repudiated the task force’s findings and their dangerous consequences. Who could have imagined that the first target of the “death panels” would be women in their 40s?

The challenge for women as this next wave of “feminism” continues to unfold is to re-engineer our thinking on women’s advocacy. Unless you were sleeping for the last two weeks, you by now have realized that the Democratic Party is not the party of women. Nor is the Republican Party. We must, as a gender, unite around the issues that impact us all—just as our women senators have united this year to pass fair pay and to protect women contractors from rape. We should embrace what the current Newsmax cover describes as The Newer Feminism, which has a home for leaders regardless of political affiliation: Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, Suzy Welch, and Kathy Ireland, among others.

Women will advance when we bolster women’s representation in leadership positions. State’s Exhibit A: If it were not for women leaders, the Stupak amendment might already be the law of the land. Democratic Reps. Dianne DeGette of Colorado and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois pulled together a coalition. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand organized a news conference with other women leaders. Senate candidate Coakley courageously denounced the House bill while her male competitor (the one that Pelosi endorsed) pegged her as naïve. Meanwhile, women’s organizations were working together and organizing their members. Mind you, there was barely a peep from progressive men early on. Even Nicholas Kristof told women to subjugate their reproductive rights and get health care passed.

We must seize this moment to work together toward better representation and stronger women’s organizations. There needs to be accountability for those who sell us out. And here's the conversation that we want to hear someday soon on Air Force One: “We need to prioritize women’s issues. Or else we won’t be able to get support from the numerous women senators or representatives that we need to advance our agenda," says Madame President. In the meantime, ladies, it’s time for unity.

Amy Siskind is the president and co-founder of The New Agenda, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of women and girls. Ms. Siskind has appeared on CNN, Fox, and PBS. Ms. Siskind also writes for HuffPo and MORE.