Progress in the span of a lifetime



The temptation today is to focus on Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid's Monday decision to endorse a government-run health insurance option, and to point out that after 60 years of stalemate, we are now much farther along the road toward substantive health care reform than ever before - a vivid reminder that transformative progress in America often seems like an impossible dream, until it happens.

But never mind the latest twist in the health care story; I'd rather riff a bit on this broader theme of progress. It came to mind last night as I listened to New York Times columnist Gail Collins, who was in town to talk up her new book about "the amazing journey of American women" since 1960. (Disclosure: Collins and I worked together in the late '70s.) It's easy to forget how much has changed for women - in the national political realm alone - since the Mad Men era and JFK's New Frontier. It's hard to even conjure how profoundly different those days were, and yet they occurred well within the lifetimes of millions of Americans alive today.

In a span of 50 years - a blip in the life of a nation - "all the presuppositions about gender have been smashed," as Collins put it, during her talk at the National Constitution Center. "It knocks me out whenever I think about it...We've done amazing things in a tiny, tiny piece of time."

On Capitol Hill today, 17 percent of the House and Senate lawmakers are women. (The tally is 17 female senators and 75 congresswomen.) Those stats don't seem very high, given the fact that more than half the voters in any national election are women and that more than half the population is female. But, as Collins' book ably demonstrates, things were a lot worse even in the early '70s - when there were zero female senators and as few as 13 female congresswomen (which translates to 2.4 percent). Plus zero female Cabinet members, and zero U.S. Supreme Court justices.

In those not-so-distant days, female Senate and House members tended to widows who  got their jobs only because their elected husbands had died in office. Voters in congressional elections didn't go for the idea of supporting female candidates who had live husbands and family obligations back home. Collins chronicles the fate of Coya Knutson, a Minnesota congresswoman who managed to win on her own: "Her alcoholic husband, Andy, who was left behind to run the family hotel, torpedoed her career in 1958 by issuing a 'Coya, Come Home' letter claiming his marriage was being destroyed by her political success. She became the only Democratic incumbent to lose the 1958 election."

During most of this era, the sole female senator was Maine's Margaret Chase Smith. She couldn't visit the bathroom in the Senate lounge because women were officially barred from using it. During the '70s, when Colorado congresswoman Pat Schroeder tried to enter a black-tie dinner at the exclusive Touchdown Club in Washington - a dinner for which she had tickets - she was barred at the door by a guard who said that the event was closed to women, and who warned her that if she didn't leave, "you'll be carried out."

Women seeking to air their discrimination issues on Capitol Hill were often ridiculed by male lawmakers. At one point during the '60s, airline stewardesses (as they were called at the time) complained to a House committee that they were allowed to keep their jobs only if they stayed thin, single, and young. They told how their airlines would routinely check them for weight gain and body measurement. On the latter point, a male House member, in a show of jocularity, asked the stewardesses to "stand up, so we can see the dimensions of the problem." (Congresswoman Martha Griffiths, one of the early pioneers, did register a dissent. As Collins tells the story, when some airline executives argued that businessmen would cease to fly their friendly skies unless the stews were young and attractive, Griffith retorted with a bit of women's perspective: "What are you running, an airline or a whorehouse?")

It took a few decades for mainstream culture to absorb the feminist sensibility; in the political realm today, the results are obvious. It's noteworthy - yet rarely even remarked upon, which itself is a sign of progress - that so many of the key players in the congressional health reform debate are women: among them, Olympia Snowe, Nancy Pelosi, Blanche Lincoln, and Mary Landrieu. (When Snowe recently said that it's important to translate "the empathy of your experience into legislation," nobody even seemed to notice the gender-specific nature of her comment.)

Collins also pointed out last night that Hillary Clinton set precedents in 2008 even while losing her presidential bid; namely, it is now taken for granted that more substantive women will seek the presidency, and ultimately win it, in the future. Collins said, "It was such a trauma for so many women, the Hillary thing. It didn't work out and a lot of people's hearts were broken. There were a lot of sexist attacks, although we have to remember that five percent of this country is nuts." (Only five percent?) "And she made a lot of early mistakes as a candidate...but ultimately she taught the country that it's normal to have a woman running for president, to have a woman who can serve as commander-in-chief, and I think that's a humongous achievement."

Nirvana will never arrive, of course. Progress is not synonymous with perfection. Collins points out the tally of women on Capitol Hill, and in other major political posts that typically serve as springboards to the presidency, will continue to lag behind the overall female demographics - simply because "women start their political careers later than men." And they start later because they're still more tethered to home and kids than men are; in Collins' words, women still haven't resolved "the tensions of trying to raise children and hold down a job at the same time."

On the other hand, in just half a century, women have "created a world their female ancestors did not even have the opportunity to imagine."

And that's what I mean by progress.