The Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues is celebrating its 31st anniversary this week, with a gala tonight honoring its leaders. As we observe this significant milestone, it’s important to recognize what a remarkable time this is for American women and pause to appreciate how far we have come as women both in Congress and across the country.
Consider this: Just 87 years after American women received the right to vote in federal elections, women now are expected to cast more than half of the votes in the upcoming 2008 election. This high level of participation shouldn’t surprise anyone. Already, women manage more than half of household incomes, control more than half the money in the New York Stock Exchange and make most of the health care decisions in the family, all while trying to balance the demands of work and family life.
This enhanced influence of women in all aspects of American life is reflected in the increased power of women in Congress. Most notably, we saw the inauguration of the first female Speaker last year. We also have 73 women serving in the House of Representatives. And 35 House committees and subcommittees are chaired by women or have female ranking members.
This is a far cry from 31 years ago when the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues was founded. At that time, women in the House didn’t enjoy the same amount of influence and respect in the halls of Congress as they do today. There were far fewer female Members, and their male colleagues largely wrote them off. Infamously, one of our founding Members — then-Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) — was forced to share a seat, literally, on the Armed Services Committee. This underscored the larger fight facing women to gain a seat at the tables of power in Congress and across the country.
In the face of this adversity, the women of Congress joined together across party lines to form the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues. We found that, by uniting as women, we can often transcend the traditional boundaries of partisan politics and advance our shared agenda of addressing issues important to women and families.
In 2007, working together, we passed legislation that protected genetic information nondiscrimination, highlighted International Women’s Day, honored the important role the Girl Scouts play in helping young girls, recognized the important contributions of women serving in the military and celebrated the anniversary of Title IX. Additionally, we continued to bring attention to important women’s health issues such as breast cancer and cervical cancer.
Our ambitious agenda for the second half of the 110th Congress builds on our previous successes and pushes for progress in some new areas as well. In February, our caucus led the effort to pass legislation recognizing American Heart Month and National Wear Red Day (H.Res. 972). The resolution noted that diseases of the heart are the leading cause of death in America. Because heart disease is the number one killer of women, the caucus also is pushing for passage of the Heart Disease Education, Analysis, Research and Treatment for Women Act (H.R. 1014).
In addition to raising awareness about the danger heart disease poses to women, we want to bring attention to the need to improve maternal health here and around the world. Every minute, a woman dies from complications related to her pregnancy or childbirth, and shockingly the United States ranks last among developed nations when it comes to maternal mortality. Although many assume motherhood is the most natural process in the world, for far too many women, giving birth can actually mean death. While this is a challenging problem, it is solvable if we work together to increase access to prenatal and postnatal care.
It’s also important to challenge women to lead healthy lifestyles. A quarter of all health care costs can be prevented through our own lifestyle choices. Eating right and getting plenty of exercise goes a long way toward preventing heart disease and being a healthy mother. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 75 percent of all U.S. health spending goes to treat chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, two diseases influenced by lifestyle. Nine out of 10 heart attacks and one-third of all cancers would not happen if we took care of our bodies.
Beyond focusing on women’s health, we will continue to honor the service of our women in the military. We also will be working to address the challenges that face female service members, whether it’s providing adequate maternity leave and child care for mothers in the military or preventing instances of sexual harassment.
Finally, we want to enhance educational opportunities for girls in science, technology, engineering and math. By emphasizing classroom competitiveness in these traditionally male-dominated fields, we hope to open more doors to women while helping our country better compete in the global marketplace.
As we reflect on how far American women and female Members of Congress have come over the past 31 years, we are proud of all that we have accomplished, and we are hopeful about the future. As co-chairs of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, we are committed to solving problems that affect our mothers, grandmothers, wives, sisters and daughters — no matter where they live. We look forward to building on the success we have had in 2007 to bringing more attention and solutions to issues that will impact women and families in the coming years.
Reps. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) serve as co-chairs of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues. The caucus was founded on April 19, 1977, by 15 Congresswomen from both sides of the aisle. Thirty-one years after its founding, the caucus now boasts 73 members.