January 19, 2009 / Uncategorized

The Tyranny Of Low Expectations: Democratic Women Politicians Celebrate


Editor’s note: Beginning this month, The New Agenda Blog will be featuring regular columns from a diverse group of contributors. Gretchen Glasscock is Founder and President of Advancing Women, an organization and web portal that supports equity for women and minorities in the workplace through career and financial parity. She’s also the editor of the Advancing Women Career & Biz Blog and a co-founder of The New Agenda.

WASHINGTON - JUNE 07:  U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodha...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

I have to admit I feel intensely conflicted when I see stories like the following:

“Democratic women in politics celebrated”, 1/9/09, by Mackenzie Carpenter in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

WASHINGTON — They joked. They choked up. They banged shoes, they gave thanks, and delivered a warning: that despite gains for progressive female candidates in the 2008 election, there are still five men for every woman in the U.S. House of Representatives.

A lively, lengthy luncheon was hosted by feminist fundraising organization Emily’s List and headlined by Secretary of State nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton and a parade of political superstars celebrating 2008 victories by Democratic women — and female cabinet appointments by President-elect Barack Obama.

The mostly female audience of 2,000 stomped and cheered wildly when Mrs. Clinton, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Labor secretary nominee Hilda Solis and Homeland Security secretary nominee Janet Napolitano appeared at the Washington Hilton event to deliver the same message, over and over again: Without Emily’s List, they wouldn’t be there.

Emily’s List is one of the largest and most respected political action committees in the country, which during the 2007-08 election cycle raised more than $43 million to recruit and support liberal women candidates. The organization has just helped elect Senators Hagan and Shaheen, and brought us feminist House members like Diana DeGette, Lynn Woolsey, Betty McCollum, Jan Schakowsky, and Stephanie Herseth and Senators Stabenow and Murray. Quite an achievement, and certainly one to be applauded.

I am all for women getting together and celebrating our victories. But then I’m immediately caught up short with the haunting question: “What exactly are our victories?”

Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney wrote a book, Rumours of Our Progress Have Been Greatly Exaggeratedwhich pretty much sums up the problem. Maloney, described as a “gracious, intelligent, fiery and fabulous feminist” makes the point that real progress will come for women “when there is a critical mass of women in government. Once 30% of our representatives are women [Ed. some say 50%], women’s issues begin to be addressed. The United States is nowhere near that critical mass yet.”

We are at 16%-17% of women in Congress. So again, I have to ask….although it may feel good at the moment, exactly what is there to celebrate?

I know most are in a celebratory mood with the coming inauguration and the historical precedent of fuller equality in political office and the life of our country. But let’s face it. Women are still looking for full equity in this society.

And the danger I see is that of the tyranny of low expectations.

We seem to be happy with the crumbs. The term used in this context was “gleeful”. We feel grateful to achieve anything; to get elected to anything merits our celebration.

To me, 16%-17% of women in Congress should merit our outrage and our anger or at the very least our unified and coordinated resistance.

I know. I know. No one likes an angry woman. It is one of the stereotypes used against us. But where would our country be without the outrage that instigated the Boston Tea Party? And where would women be without the Suffragettes’ refusal to accept the status of second class citizens without the full rights enjoyed by others and guaranteed by our Constitution? Where, in fact, would African Americans be without Rosa Parks and her refusal to stoically accept what she was dished out? Would we then be celebrating this inauguration with this incoming president. Or would be waiting another generation or two?

There are some women who are brimming with frustration and disappointment over the slowness—the “pouring molasses on a February day in Vermont” slowness—of our progress. These women may not be sanguine over the success of Emily’s List, believing there is too little accomplishment or laying the blame on women themselves, for one reason or another.

Although they certainly have a right to their opinion and can speak for themselves, I don’t agree with that. I believe we should take pride in and claim our accomplishments as was done at this luncheon and “meeting of the tribe” of those who seek to advance women. Ellen Malcolm, founder of Emily’s List, proudly touted her group’s role in the election of two Democratic women governors, two Democratic women senators and 12 new Democratic women in the House.

At the same time, Malcolm went on to challenge the group to work harder, noting that the U.S. House of Representatives remains predominantly male.

“Our work is far from over,” she said. “We are nowhere near a representative democracy that rightfully includes the full participation of half the population.”

This much is clear.

I believe, like Eleanor Roosevelt said about peace: “It isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it. One must work at it.” And the same applies to women’s rights and elevation to public office. As slow as progress may be we must never give up and never give in. We may take a moment to celebrate where we are. It is after all, a bit further down the road than we were before, at least in some respects. ( Remember the 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling.)

But we must, above all else, keep working to elect women sheriff, dog catcher, city councilwoman, mayor, governor and senator. Then one day, we, too, may finally get to that dream that so many of us have, of women gaining full equity in this country.

Join Our Email List

Be the first to know the latest initiatives from The New Agenda to improve the lives of women and girls.

Thank you for joining our list! Check your inbox to confirm your subscription.

  • RealChange

    “I have to admit I feel intensely conflicted”.

    I want to celebrate our victories too, but when I read that someone like Nancy Pelosi was part of the honored group celebrating these victories, after what she has done to hold back the advancement of women this past year, I can hardly contain myself. Talk about the audacity of hypocrisy. It is not just “some” women who are “brimming with frustration and disappointment over the slowness… of our progress”, it is many women. I am 56 years old, the oldest of 7 sisters, and I have been “working” for the advancement of women for as long as I can remember. Of course, I’m not going to give up and I’m not going to give in, but, forgive me, I can not celebrate right now. Not when the celebrations going on around us at this very moment are for the emphatic victory of the patriarchy. I have had many celebratory moments recently, but right now is not one of them. Maybe in 4 more years or 8 more years I will be able to celebrate at this particular time of the year. I hope in my life time I will be able to celebrate the true equality of women, but sadly, now is not that time.

  • When men make up 84% of the Congress and 83% of the Senate AND women lost ground in state gov’t representation in 10 states during the 2008 election cycle, I am at a loss for what we are celebrating!

  • Anna

    Perhaps some communication with Emily’s List would be in order to ask them how they justify the feelings of glee. Perhaps it’s a bit of self-congratulatory partying. Ugh.

  • it’s called fundraising!

  • Sheryl Robinson

    And justifying your activities to those who gave you money.

  • I don’t know that Emily’s List deserves negativity from us. They supported HIllary pretty well, didn’t they?

    My impression is that they are going for 51% the right way — by picking some good feminist candidates to support. (Even if they did have to invite Pelosi to their party.)

  • BAC

    There is something to be said for recharging your battery to fight another day. The EMILY’s List event did just that!

    And again, why throw women under the bus for wanting to raise money to continue the good work they are doing? Keep in mind that Susan B. had to buy a lot of train tickets when she organized the movement to secure voting rights for women.


  • Sheryl Robinson

    I retract my snark.

    Emily’s List has done a great deal for women. I just get tired of waiting for more women to get pissed off enough to demand that to which they are entitled. That’s not the fault of Emily’s List, or indeed, of any women’s rights organization.

  • purity1

    Great post. Our paltry numbers should be alarming.

  • purity1

    When women start to see the red flag of our underrepresentation that is raised every day of our lives we will see big changes. I have great faith in women that they will see this and act.

  • From Heidi Li’s latest post on her blog:

    What must be made clear here is the consistency in wanting Governor Paterson to contribute to proportional representation for women while objecting to him appointing Caroline Kennedy. Governor Paterson is in the lucky position of having various qualified, competent women to consider for the appointment. He need not cloud the issue with considerations of affirmative action based either on gender or family background. Thus, he can illustrate the way in which the end of proportional representation for the 51 percent of the population that are women has nothing to do with the means of affirmative action of any kind.

  • KayJL

    fsteele…yes, Emily’s List did go all-out for Hillary. my one gripe with them has to do with after Hillary left the race. their fundraising efforts included a letter asking for money to help fight sexism against Michelle Obama, the trouble being there weren’t any sexist attacks on Michelle Obama, at least not from msm or any prominent political figures. then, Sarah Palin gets hung in effigy, all in the name of Halloween “fun”, and Emily’s List is silent.

    so Emily’s List does help women–liberal women–and seems to take an approach that women who aren’t liberals somehow aren’t women.

    if I’m wrong about any of that I’ll gladly stand corrected.

    great post from Heidi Li on CK. last few days it looks like Maloney may have a shot–she’s got the endorsements of women’s groups, has been in Congress for sixteen years, plus was getting some visibility last week and doing a good job of speaking up for herself.

  • goesh

    I suppose the “crumbs” can be appreciated in light of the multi billion dollar porn industry that exists. It seems obstacles are almost insurmountable at times but surely to God it will be better for my granddaughters.

  • Kevin

    I don’t believe women should be caught up in celebrating a victory for women from this election. The cabinet appointments and number of women in executive positions and the US congress doesn’t warrant it.

    This is a tremendous moment for America. For African Americans, many young people and many Americans this is truly a historic and joyful moment.

    TNA’s charge is to enjoy the uniqueness of this moment and the progress America has made in race relations but be relentless in demanding and holding Obama and his administration to enact legislation, to enforce laws and to create policies that benefit women.

    I am conflicted because as an African American, I am quite proud of American today but as a husband of a wife that works in corporate America, I know – I really know – more needs to be done to stop sexism and create more opportunities for women.

  • KayJL,

    Gilllibrand meets two more of Paterson’s criteria: upstate, and young enough to serve several decades to build seniority. Here’s an article with more about her. http://blogs.villagevoice.com/.....ols_to.php

  • Anna

    I agree there’s no need to have a blanket negative attitude toward Emily’s List. They’ve done amazing things and deserve kudos!

    I also agree that it’s important to re-charge, emotionally and financially.

    I also agree that Emily’s List (and others) should be held accountable for the double standards regarding how they did or did not speak out in defense of Palin against sexist attacks.

    I think Emily’s List, like many other feminist orgs, should insert the caveat in their mission statement that they are for liberal women, since it appears that is who they support.

  • Constance

    I’m sick today. Obama and the Democrats have set women back 50 years with their effective use of misogyny and their insistence that it was all just a joke. Cant’ you take a joke girls? And what blows me away is I keep getting donation requests from NOW and other democrat ladies auxiliaries who assure me that women have gained “so much” and now have a real leader in BO. So I guess I have fallen through the rabbit hole or something. Actually I think I am now a Republican and none of these groups will ever get another dime from me.

  • Constance

    KayJL: You are right.

  • Sis

    I just read an e-mail from a person I formerly admired, one who seemed to emulate good sense. He wrote an essay basically deifying Obama, and likening him to Ghandi and others.

    He doesn’t know Ghandi was just about as much a misogynistic user of women as Obama is. Because it’s been written out of history of course, and only the deifying remains.

  • Thia, GA


    “So I guess I have fallen through the rabbit hole or something.”

    My feelings exactly!

  • yttik

    Count me in with feeling like I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole.

  • Kevin

    Obama and the Democrats have set women back 50 years?????

    I believe this is glass empty (not even half empty) talk. I respect the opinion but if Obama fufills this agenda http://www.whitehouse.gov/agenda/women/, I believe the agenda for women moves forward, not backwards.

    The question is: can TNA constructively hold Obama to this agenda if, in fact, it believes the agenda is a good one.

  • Sis

    Kevin. Favreau the Grope wrote Obama’s inaugural speech. Warren the Beat gave the benediction (or whatever it’s called), Summers the Bigot smirked in the background, Jill Biden made sure everyone knew Obama offered SOS to Hillary after Joe refused, Robinson (the gay Anglican church minister) had his speech cut from the previous day’s celebrations–the broadcaster blaming the Obama people, the Obama people blaming it on … something else.

    No amount of what I say not what I do is going to cut it here. .

  • Anne-Marie

    There’s a petition to install a Secretary of Culture in the Obama Cabinet. What about a petition to have a new Secretary of Women’s Advancement in the new Cabinet?