One hundred and sixty years ago, an intrepid group of feminists gathered in Seneca Falls, N.Y., to issue a manifesto modeled on the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Sentiments detailed the oppression and denial of rights suffered by women at the time. The Seneca Falls Convention, as it came to be known, also declared that “it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.”
It took another 72 years for women to win the right to vote — but full exercise of the franchise is nowhere near at hand.
Women do vote now in slightly higher numbers than men, but sadly that is not saying much. In 2004, 40% of women failed to vote, a slight improvement over 2000 when almost 44% did not vote. The numbers for young women are disastrous.
In an era when political fortunes have turned over the issue of the right to reproductive choice, 65% of women 18 to 24 failed to vote in 2000 and 55% did not vote in 2004. Of women 24 to 44 years of age, 48% did not vote in 2000 and 45% did not vote in 2004. More than 20 million single women did not vote in 2004.
It’s not as if the right to choose was the only thing at stake. For the last eight years, every aspect of reproductive freedom has been vulnerable to the ideological bent of those elected to public office. As a result, family planning programs have been choked with restrictions, abstinence-only sex education has received increased federal funding, and access to emergency contraception became a matter for the Food and Drug Administration.
Nor is the impact of elected officials confined to the legislative arena. Rights are interpreted and enforced by courts, and the Bush administration has made a point of appointing judges who fit its ideological mold.
For the first time, the Supreme Court has upheld banning specific abortion procedures without an exception for the health of the woman. The new court, led by Chief Justice John Roberts and aided by Justice Samuel Alito — both Bush nominees — also made it more difficult to sue for employment discrimination.
How will the next president pick nominees to fill anticipated court vacancies? How will senators determine which nominees to confirm? What will those who elect these public officials require of them?
The general wellbeing of women and their families are indeed impacted by who votes and who is elected. Twenty-one million women live in poverty, compared to 16 million men. Women still earn less than men — 77 cents for every dollar a man earns, and the laws against pay discrimination are in serious need of repair.
Eighteen percent of women have no health insurance of any kind, and another 25% are covered only as dependents to a wage earner. Women are pulled in two directions: In need of child care and after-school care for their children, and access to long-term care and home- and community–based care for their elderly relatives and eventually themselves. These problems have remedies — what is needed is a mandate given by the voters to address them.
In short, women have a lot at stake in this election concerning their own wellbeing and that of their families. And they share the anxieties of all voters about issues of war and peace, civil liberties and homeland security.
Candidates for president and Congress can win over women by convincing them that they and their families will be better off depending on what choice they make at the polling place. That means putting issues affecting women front and center in campaign debates and strategies.
For their part, women must demand that their concerns be a central part of every platform. We need to be visible and not overly polite in defending our rights.
Our foremothers at Seneca Falls knew that the elective franchise was the bedrock of equality. They built a massive movement to realize their goal.
This year the vote will matter as much and arguably more than ever, as the fate of the Supreme Court, the economy, health care and many other major issues hang in the balance. The successful presidential and congressional candidates will win by mobilizing women. Women will win if they exercise the sacred duty to vote and thereby ensure that the winning candidate is pledged to address their concerns.
Nancy Ratzan is president of the National Council of Jewish Women.