International Women’s Day occurred yesterday.
In 1909, the United States observed National Women’s Day, which inspired members at the International Women’s Conference to organize an international equivalent, and the first International Women’s Day (IWD) was celebrated in 1911.
The day is meant to celebrate the economic, political, and social achievements and advancements made by women, but also to bring awareness to gender inequality throughout the world.
Even though the idea for this day started in the United States, it doesn’t get a lot of attention here and tends to be a bigger celebration in other countries. Sarah Stuteville, co-founder and editor of the Common Language Project, reflected on her experience celebrating IWD in Mexico in a recent article for The Seattle Globalist: “I was surprised to find the streets filled with parades and vendors selling giant teddy bears in celebration of International Women’s Day. Random people greeted me with a cheerful “Feliz dia de la mujer.’”
For women in American politics, the double-edged sword that accompanies the celebration of International Women’s Day is something they also experience. American women in politics experience both triumph and defeat, opportunity and oppression.
Victoria Woodhull was a women’s suffragist and is credited as the first woman candidate for President of the United States. However, with a candidacy in 1872, Woodhull couldn’t even vote for herself.
Jeannette Rankin (R-MT) was the first woman elected to U.S. Congress in 1917 and the first Vice President of the American Civil Liberties Union. As an unmarried woman, Rankin was met with public speculation that she was either a harlot or a lesbian. At the time, citizens and newspapers gossiped about how she was going to lure so many bachelors and married men to her congressional office that the entirety of congressional work may grind to a halt, or that she plum didn’t like men and preferred women.
In 1966 Barbara Jordan (D-TX) was the first African American elected to the Texas Senate after Reconstruction, and in 1972 she was the first female elected to represent Texas in the US House of Representatives who was not a wife or widow of a previous representative. And in 1976, she was the first African-American woman to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. Her speech at the DNC was ranked 5th by leading scholars of public address on the Top 100 American Speeches of the 20th century, and it earned her one delegate vote for President at the convention even though she was not a candidate. However, the next day, after giving this historic speech, the Houston Chronicle ran a story with pictures of Jordan before and after the speech and commented on how much weight she had lost.
Fast forward to the 2012 elections, and we see the double-edged sword effect.
Michele Bachmann (R-MN) caught almost immediate fire when she announced her candidacy, and won the Ames Straw Poll. However, the news media was filled with overtly sexist or gender-laced headlines: “Michele Bachmann, Wife In Chief?,” “Bachmann bats eyes at Iowa,” and “Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann head for 2012 ‘cat fight.’” And Bachmann’s Republican rivals made statements about her looks: former Governor Jon Huntsman said, “She makes for good copy — and good photography,” and Vin Weber, a former GOP congressman from Minnesota who served as co-chairman for Tim Pawlenty said this about Bachmann’s chances in Iowa: “She’s got hometown appeal, she’s got ideological appeal, and, I hate to say it, but she’s got a little sex appeal too.”
Regarding the issues of 2012, there have also been triumphs and failures. Certain issues, often cast as “women’s issues,” such as reproductive rights, equal pay, and maternity leave, do not often appear in substantial ways in national debate during presidential election years. 2012, of course, has been different.
From candidates commenting on the Susan G. Komen and Planned Parenthood funding debate to the clash over insurance coverage for contraception, issues that deal directly with a woman’s body and access to health care for women have been a mainstay in the headlines and national discourse.
However, when members of Congress met to discuss the issue of coverage for contraception, the committee was made up only of men. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) questioned: “What I want to know is, where are the women? I look at this panel, and I don’t see one single individual representing the tens of millions of women across the country who want and need insurance coverage for basic preventative health care services, including family planning. Where are the women?”
And when Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown University law student who was testifying on access to contraception for students, a “slut,” the trials and tribulations of being a woman in modern America were evident once again.
International Women’s Day will not occur for another 365 days, but in the mean time, celebrate American women in all sectors of society and in politics. Celebrate that Nancy Pelosi became the first female Speaker of the House in 2007. Celebrate that Susana Martinez became the first Hispanic female governor in the United States when she was elected in New Mexico in 2010. Celebrate progress. But also recognize that this progress has been slow, and that these women, and their counterparts in other American domains like business and the military, have all had to surmount overwhelming challenges to get to where they are today.