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Caucus Has Come a Long Way

Congressional Women’s Group Marks 30th Anniversary

For three decades the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues has aspired to the bipartisan comity so often lacking on Capitol Hill. It operates on a consensus basis, has bipartisan leadership and has largely avoided the abortion issue.

“We probably are the most unified caucus,” says its current co-chairwoman, Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.).

Now with the recent elevation of one of its own — Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — to the Speakership, the caucus can boast that the highest levels of Congressional power are on its side. When the group held its organizational meeting earlier this year, it was in one of the Speaker’s conference rooms in the Capitol. And Pelosi will headline a gala Tuesday evening at Union Station in honor of the caucus’ 30th anniversary.

The women’s caucus has certainly come a long way since its first meeting on April 19, 1977, when the group, then known as the Congresswomen’s Caucus, consisted of 15 women gathering in the Corrine “Lindy” Boggs Congressional Women’s Reading Room, the female Members’ bathroom and lounge. Today, the caucus’ numbers have mushroomed to 73 female House Members, including non-voting delegates. The only female Member to opt out of the caucus is Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R-Va.), who resigned from it in 2003 because, according to a story in Newport News’ Daily Press, she believed it had become too politically divisive. “It shouldn’t matter if you’re male or female,” the paper quoted her as saying. “I’m just a member of Congress, like they are. No different.” (The Senate does not have an official women’s caucus, though the 16 female Senators do hold meetings from time to time.)

Back in the 1970s, the widespread support the women’s issues caucus enjoys today was hardly assured.

One of the caucus’ founding members, then-Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.), arrived in Congress in 1973 and remembers the initial resistance against forming such a caucus — from other women.

“When I first came the dean of the women was Mrs. Leonor Sullivan (D-Mo.),” Schroeder said. “She felt very strongly that we didn’t need that kind of thing and she was the dean, so it was a little hard to work around.”

Sullivan retired at the end of 1976, and the group was launched the following year.

Since then, its members have fought to defend funding for Title IX, worked for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act and highlighted a variety of women’s health issues. Each year, around Memorial Day, the group holds an event at Arlington National Cemetery to honor military women.

Capps said an agreement existed that “we don’t get into issues of reproduction because then it becomes contentious.”

Cynthia Hall of Women’s Policy Inc., an independent nonprofit group that supports the work of the caucus and is hosting Tuesday’s gala, said in an e-mail that in its 30-year history the caucus had taken a “pro-choice position only during the 103rd and 104th Congresses” but “decided at the beginning of the 105th to set the issue aside once again so that all women Members would join the Caucus.”

Beyond the abortion issue, the group has found other ways to agree to disagree, said Hall, such as deciding not to take a position on the overall 1996 welfare reform legislation. Instead, the caucus chose to focus on two aspects of the bill all its members could get behind — the child support enforcement provision and improved child care funding.

The relationship between its current co-chairwomen — the liberal Capps and the conservative Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) — underscores the collegial, bipartisan spirit the group favors. The two have bonded as part of an intimate Wednesday morning prayer breakfast for female Members at a house on C Street (where a bipartisan group of male Members lives near the Capitol). McMorris Rodgers also is quick to point out that she often hears from constituents who know Capps, who spent part of her childhood near McMorris Rodgers’ district in Eastern Washington.

When it comes to men, the caucus maintains a girls-only policy — though that wasn’t always the case. From 1981 to 1995 (when the new Republican-controlled House voted to abolish funding for caucuses), men were allowed to join as non-voting auxiliary members. But after the switch to informal, non-federally funded members’ groups, the caucus reorganized and instituted a female-only policy, which it has maintained despite Rep. Dale Kildee’s (D-Mich.) attempts in 2002 to officially join.

Looking ahead, the caucus hopes to enact a menu of “must-pass” legislation that it will officially roll out at the anniversary gala Tuesday. Among these priorities, it wants to see more women’s art in the Capitol and a women’s history stamp, the passage of a bill related to women’s heart health and approval of another barring genetic information discrimination with respect to health insurance and employment. The group also favors the enhancement of math and science education for girls in the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Despite women’s successes to date (the 110th Congress boasts the highest number of women in history — 90), Schroeder said the group still had much to do.

She pointed to a recent Washington Post story about the Food and Drug Administration’s slashing of funding for its Office of Women’s Health. “I screamed when I read the paper,” Schroeder said. “It never ends. I’m sorry to say.”

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