A hush fell over the room as some of the most powerful women in the Democratic Party took their seats on a panel to discuss women’s economic security. Hillary Clinton, presidential candidate in waiting and first among equals, sketched out the challenges. Women hold two-thirds of minimum-wage jobs, she said, and three-quarters of the jobs that rely on tips, like waitresses, bartenders, hairstylists. In many states, the minimum wage for tipped workers is as low as $2.13 an hour.
Although a Census report released this week shows the poverty rate declined for the first time since 2006, Clinton said it also found that more women are likely to be impoverished even if they’re working. She urged a “fair shot” for women, and if you’ve been watching the PBS series on the Roosevelts, FDR’s New Deal, and TR’s Square Deal, you can begin to imagine Clinton’s campaign taking shape.
“We need a broader-based economic platform that is inclusive,” she said, a clunky way of fleshing out the fair shot she envisions for women, and indeed all Americans. She gives President Obama full credit for “stanching the bleeding” from the financial meltdown, but said, “Unless we change our politics, a lot of the benefits are not going to be broadly shared.”
It may not have been lost on Clinton that soon after her event wrapped at the liberal think tank, the Center for American Progress (CAP), Senator Elizabeth Warren would be headlining a “Hands Off our Social Security and Medicare” rally on Capitol Hill, priorities for Clinton too but not as female-centric and pitched to younger voters as the agenda she and others outlined at CAP.
While Clinton seems to be searching for the magic she’ll need to inspire voters in any run for the presidency, Warren just says what’s on her mind about how the middle class has been screwed, and Democrats swoon. Warren shows no inclination to challenge Clinton, and along with every other female Democratic senator, she signed a letter of support to Clinton. Still, her absence on the stage at CAP on Thursday reflects an issue gap for Democrats between the progressive left, where much of the party’s energy is, and the center that Clinton and her husband have so ably represented for the last quarter-century. Tapping into middle-class grievances with populist ideas on the economy is where Warren excels.
Flanking Clinton at CAP were pioneers like herself who have been in the trenches fighting for women’s issues for decades. The indefatigable Nancy Pelosi, former House speaker, now Democratic leader; Washington State’s Patty Murray, elected as a “mom in tennis shoes,” now chair of the Senate Budget committee; Rosa DeLauro, Connecticut congresswoman, “the godmother” of what she calls “family-centered economics.”
The only newcomer among these stalwarts, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who has the seat that Clinton once held, raised the issue of paid family leave—a core concern where women are shouldering the care of parents as well as children. “Afghanistan and Pakistan have more paid leave than us,” she said, “and they don’t even educate their girls.” With eight out of 10 women in the work force, and four out of 10 the sole or primary breadwinner, “I think we have a Rosie the Riveter moment for this generation,” Gillibrand declared. Recalling the iconic World War II image of a woman with her sleeves rolled up ready to contribute to the war effort, Gillibrand said 6 million women entered the work force then.
Clinton supports the idea of paid family leave but has recently said she doesn’t think “we can get there” politically right now. What Democrats have to do, she said at the CAP event, is “turn an issue into a political movement.” Bus tours, storming the gates, whatever it takes. She was referring to the 40-odd days until the November election, but she might as well have been talking about her likely presidential run. “Hillary, I don’t know what this signifies in terms of your future,” DeLauro said at one point almost as an aside as the audience tittered.
Paid family leave, paid sick leave, flexible work, day care, minimum wage, all these issues that Clinton and the others had championed for so long and that were typically marginalized as lacking urgency, or not big vote-getters, or too emblematic of the “nanny party.” Now they’re seen as the way to win elections. “This is the center of the public discussion, and that is a very big change,” DeLauro enthused.
Rebutting critics who say Democrats are just playing election-year politics, DeLauro said she introduced pay equity in 1997, and paid sick leave in 2005. More than a year ago, Democrats stood on the steps of the Capitol and declared quality affordable day care “the missing link” in gaining women’s full participation in the work force. “The reason these [issues] are so central, jobs do not pay enough for people to live on, and for women, the challenges are overwhelming,” DeLauro said. And if you’re watching ‘The Roosevelts,’ your heart sings and it longs for what happened in the New Deal.”
The message is that strong progressive leadership is within reach if women seize it at the ballot box. “What is our strategy?” Pelosi said. “We want women to vote.” That’s what politicians pay attention to, and that’s how to break the logjam in Congress. The measures these women are advocating will pass, Pelosi said. “It’s inevitable to us, [and] inconceivable to them,” referring to House Republicans. “We have to shorten the distance between inevitable and inconceivable.”