It was 90-plus degrees outside Thursday, the hottest, stickiest day so far of Washington’s summer, as inside the Capitol, Nancy Pelosi marshaled her troops for the launch of the Democrats’ new economic agenda for women. “We’ll be efficient,” she promised. “Hydrate first, then go outside and make our point. Whatever the weather, women can take the heat.” Standing on the Capitol steps in the midday sun, Democratic women lawmakers and a few hardy male colleagues looked like modern-day suffragists, their banners held high proclaiming pay equity, work-family balance, and child care in the signature purple color of the suffragist movement.
These issues are not new. Indeed they’re so familiar to women activists that Judith Lichtman, sweltering in the heat and humidity, marveled at how they’re the same causes she championed 40 years ago when she founded what became the National Partnership for Women and Families. With the Republicans in charge in the House, there is no chance that a progressive legislative agenda geared to the interests of women could pass. “But If you don’t start a national conversation, it will never happen,” she said. And there is reason to believe that these well-worn issues, redesigned to appeal to a new generation of women in the workplace, could have political impact.
At a luncheon roundtable with female reporters before going out on the Capitol steps, Pelosi talked about the growing disparity in income, how women are at the low end of the income chain, and how America’s children are affected. “Whether you want to call it an imperfect storm or a perfect storm, it’s bad weather for women all around,” she said.
With no legislative road map and no apparent strategy beyond highlighting these issues, reporters were skeptical about what Pelosi is up to, whether these issues have the same resonance they once had, and whether this focus on women is aimed more at rallying votes for next year’s midterm elections. One reporter questioned whether the economy was really that bad for women. Pelosi conceded that some women, typically those who are better educated and who are married, are doing better than their male counterparts. “Hip hip, hurray,” she added, but it’s not the norm. And she pushed back at the notion that this push for women is purely political. “Believe me, we would rather they [Republicans] came up and joined us in this rather than us using it as a political weapon,” she said.
Pelosi’s mantra is “Don’t agonize, organize,” and she sees an opportunity for Democrats to respond to the concerns of women, who are a growing and powerful force in the workplace.
“I’m in awe of my daughters,” she said, “and you, too,” nodding to the female journalists around the table who have young children. “I was sequential in what I did,” she said, meaning she waited to work outside the home until the youngest of her five children was in school. Turning to the portrait of Lincoln that hangs on her wall, she said public sentiment is important, and she believes the timing is right for the movement she is spearheading.
“If you put out the word that any one of us [female lawmakers] is coming to talk about these issues, you will be deluged,” she said. If there’s a conference with 5,000 people, and there are breakout groups about work-life balance, “4,500 would come to that. It is just a thirst—an interest that gives us an opportunity to do something now.”
She calls child care “the missing link” in the trajectory of women’s progress. Not since President Nixon vetoed child-care legislation in the 1970s have the Democrats made a serious effort to revisit the issue. Pelosi was defensive about that lost momentum, pointing out that one of the first pieces of legislation President Clinton signed into law was the Family and Medical Leave Act that his predecessor, George H.W. Bush, had twice vetoed. Two years later, Democrats lost the Congress. Then, in 2009, with President Obama in the White House and Pelosi as speaker, Democrats thought they would have more time. Instead, less than two years later, they lost the House.
“So we’re just getting ready,” she said, for when Democrats are back in power.
A reporter challenged Pelosi and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), who was also at the lunch, saying that both long-serving lawmakers “have been to this same rodeo before,” so why would they think they would fare any better this time around? DeLauro introduced paycheck-fairness legislation in the House in 1997. It twice passed the House only to fall five votes short in the Senate. “It’s not the same rodeo,” DeLauro protested. And Democrats are not talking about a specific piece of legislation, but an overall agenda they believe addresses the fundamental needs of a new generation of women in the workplace while steering clear of abortion and leaving sexual harassment in the military to the women in the Senate. The agenda as presented on this blisteringly hot day set up a stark contrast with the GOP. With Republican rebranding a flop, Democrats are trying to clear the field for themselves in appealing to single working women and unmarried women, voters who are as key to winning in 2014 as in 2012.