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Women’s Diminished Policy Voice

April 14, 2011 By Sarah Taylor-Nanista, Guest Commentary

“When Minnesota women thrive, Minnesota thrives,” said State Rep. Tina Liebling at a recent press conference of progressive women legislators. “For decades we have understood this in Minnesota. It’s why a higher percentage of Minnesota women participate in the workforce than in any other state.” 

This decades-long understanding is currently under serious attack. The 2010 November elections resulted in a decline in the number of women serving in state government for the first time in ten years. Those who work on policy issues that disproportionately effect women and families noted with concern the implications of fewer women in government. Conservatives, predominantly men but not exclusively, campaigned on the need to prioritize economic challenges over social issues. Social needs, however, cannot be separated from economics. At the same time, social conservatives in power consistently attack the social and economic gains of women.

The loss of women in policymaking, nationally and statewide, is resulting in archaic and devastating policy proposals for women and families, including proposals to eliminate women’s health care funding and family planning services, as we saw last week in the federal budget negations.

Had it not been for female voices in Congress, funding for women’s health care services at Planned Parenthood (having nothing to do with abortion) might have been eliminated or severely reduced.

At a recent press conference, a group of progressive women legislators addressed the impact of the proposed budget cuts working their way through the Minnesota Legislature. Programs for victims of domestic violence and violence against children, K-12 and higher education, public safety are all on the chopping block. None of these crippling cuts should be a surprise. Women in positions of power in government are the ones most likely to champion the social services that most directly support women and families.

What happened to the campaign promises to strengthen the economy and create jobs? Many of the current budget proposals will directly damage the economic stability of women in Minnesota. The effort this session to repeal the gender pay-equity protection laws that have helped Minnesota women employed in the public sector since 1984 is a good indication of whose economic stability legislators are prioritizing. Conservatives are targeting professions held predominantly by women. The proposed freezes to teacher pay and elimination of teachers’ right to strike hurt women: 70 percent of the K-12 workforce is female. Cuts to the Human Services budget will result in cuts to hospital and nursing staff positions: 93 percent of the nursing positions in the state are filled by women.

These proposed cuts will hit women at a time when they are already struggling to bounce back from the recession. Women account for three of every 10 jobs lost during the recession, but only one in 10 of those now being hired is a woman, progressive voices noted at a recent news conference.

This legislative session is a textbook case study for the importance of a strong female voice in key policymaking positions. Despite conservatives’ claims to leave social issues off their policymaking agenda, they have mounted a direct assault on several social issues critical to women and families.

Increased women’s representation is essential to significant, substantive change in lawmaking and to policies that prioritize the health and well-being of women, children, and families. When individual women lose their seats at the policymaking table, all Minnesota women—more than half of Minnesota constituents—feel the consequences.

We’ve seen how the elimination of the Early Childhood Education and Public Health and Housing Committees stripped a voice from those critical issues in recent budgeting debates. That lack of voice isn’t going unnoticed, with woman showing strong gains in recent Minnesota special elections.

Womenwinning understands that substantive change in government depends on women’s equal representation and leadership. And we are going to work very hard over the next two years to recruit progressive women to run and win at all levels of government to ensure that never again does women’s representation—and all that comes with it—slide backwards.

Sarah Taylor-Nanista is executive director of womenwinning, an action group aiming to increase the number of women in policymaking positions.  

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