Nancy C. Unger: Pioneering women in Congress aren't guaranteed success

Roundup: Historians' Take

[NANCY C. UNGER is an associate professor of history and Women's and Gender Studies at Santa Clara University and is the author of ``Fighting Bob La Follette: the Righteous Reformer.'' She wrote this article for the Mercury News.]

Nancy Pelosi is being hailed for ``breaking the marble ceiling'' as the first female speaker of the House. The fact that the number of women serving in Congress is the largest ever is also being cited as a significant breakthrough.

But isn't all the celebration of women's triumph in Congress just a tad premature? Our nation remains woefully slow in electing women to Congress. Moreover, the dramatic career of the first woman to put a crack in the marble ceiling when she was elected to the House in 1916 shows that pioneering political women aren't always considered successful by their constituents.

Don't get me wrong. I'm thrilled to live in California, where my congressional representative is a woman, as are both my state's senators. I'm also pleased to see the highest percentage of women ever serving in Congress. However, when women constitute more than half the nation's population but hold only 16.3 percent of congressional seats, even an optimist must concede that this glass is less than half-full.

Celebrating women's gains shouldn't blind us to the fact that when it comes to this nation's political leadership, women are still in disturbingly short supply.

Let's put this in international perspective. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, when ranked among countries with national parliaments, the United States comes in 66th place based on percentage of women in office. Rwanda leads with 48.8 percent, and Sweden follows closely with 47.3 percent.

Other nations with a greater percentage of women serving in government include Afghanistan and Iraq as well as Cuba, Spain, South Africa, Germany, Mexico, Pakistan, Canada, China and the United Kingdom.

But isn't it good news that there are more women than ever in the U.S. Congress? Certainly. Whenever a representative government is made more truly representative by the election of highly qualified candidates, there is reason to celebrate.

The current tally of 71 women (out of 435 total) in the House and 16 women (out of 100) in the Senate is indeed an improvement. Placing pioneering female politicians in historical perspective, however, shows that the mere presence of women in Congress doesn't guarantee their success.

Women got off to a rocky start in Congress. When Jeannette Rankin, R-Montana, took her seat in 1917 as the first woman in Congress, the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote was still three years away from being signed into law. Rankin's election made her the focus of international attention and, like today's newly elected congresswomen, a multitude of expectations.

After only four days in office, however, Rankin's plan to extend democracy to all phases of American life was hopelessly overshadowed by her vote against U.S. entry into World War I.

An embarrassed Montana refused to re-elect her, and Carrie Chapman Catt of the National American Woman Suffrage Association warned that Rankin's ``woman's'' vote on the war would damage women for years.

Rankin remained politically active and was finally re-elected, just in time to cast the sole vote against the U.S. declaration of war against Japan, proclaiming, ``As a woman I can't go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.''

Following the 388-1 vote, Rankin took refuge in a telephone booth and called for security guards to protect her from the angry mob surrounding her. The media were nearly universal in their condemnation of Rankin. Montana again refused to re-elect her, this time for good.

Rankin returned to the public spotlight in 1968, leading the Jeannette Rankin Brigade of several thousand marchers in a protest in the nation's capital against U.S. involvement in Vietnam. When asked if she advocated surrender in Vietnam, Rankin replied, ``Surrender is a military idea. When you're doing something wrong, you stop.''

Rankin's sisters (as well as her brothers) in the Congress today would do well to consider the balance between idealism, leadership and political expediency. We would all do well to consider her assertion that ``men and women are like right and left hands; it doesn't make sense not to use both. We're half the people; we should be half the Congress.''

It's significant indeed that more women are in Congress than ever before, but what's even more important is what they'll do now that they're there.
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