You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby (with poll)

    When discussing women and politics, some images that come to mind are solemn suffragists in drab black dresses earnestly demanding the right to vote and righteous feminists advancing the still-yet-to-be-passed Equal Rights Amendment.

    But those eras have long since passed. Today, new generations of savvy young women are flexing their political muscles in a variety of ways. A national poll released last month revealed that a strong majority of Americans believe that a woman would be equal to or better than a man as president. The poll, conducted by Roper Public Affairs for The White House Project, a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing women’s leadership, reported that 74 percent of those surveyed were comfortable with the concept of a woman president. Even higher majorities expressed confidence in a woman’s ability to lead the nation on foreign policy (78 percent), homeland security (77 percent) and the economy (88 percent).

    Faith Winter, the Denver-based national field organizer for The White House Project, is cautiously optimistic about women’s prospects in politics.

    “I want women’s leadership to make a difference in that politics will be de-polarized, women will work in non-partisan coalitions, bring disenfranchised people to the table and do government more out in the open because we have included women in the process,” she says.

    But there’s still work to be done.

    “We have to create a culture where women are seen as leaders and not just leading ladies,” Winter says. “Women are covered by the media often on their hair, hemlines and husbands, automatically taking away their authority. Seeing that kind of coverage is discouraging to other women.”

    Nowhere is that discouragement more evident than in the Fort Collins City Council race. Just one woman is running for election in a field that attracted seven men, not including mayoral candidates. However, first-time candidate Lisa Poppaw remains undaunted.

    “My voice and the voices of people in my district weren’t going to be represented,” Poppaw says. “I think it’s important to have that diversity on council.”

    When asked whether she would encourage other women to run for office, she says, “You’ve got to have some moxie. Be interested in the process and take your service to the community to another level.”

    But even I fell into the “hemline” trap when I asked her how she balances community and family obligations with running for office. Poppaw retorted, “It’s funny. I wonder if anyone would ask the same question of a male candidate?”

    I’m quite sure that Shirley Chisholm – who ran a groundbreaking 1972 presidential campaign and is the inspiration for this column’s name in tribute to her declaration that she was “unbought and unbossed” – is shaking her fist at me from heaven.

    Chisholm would be much more pleased with the don’t-take-no-for-an-answer attitude of local feminist activist Lenina Olivas, who founded the Northern Colorado chapter of the National Organization of Women (NOW) a year ago to promote equality and reproductive rights. 

    “When I was 25, I took a women’s history course, and I realized that women actually did things,” Olivas says. “I was never taught that women did anything.”

    Last fall, she organized NOW protests against Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck’s stonewalling of some criminal cases involving sexual-assault victims, according to Olivas.

    “I was always told that I couldn’t do something because of my ethnicity, my sex or my class,” she says. “When people keep telling me ‘no, no, no,’ I think maybe that means ‘no’ to you but you’re not going to stop me. I’ve always had strong views since before I was even ovulating.”

    It remains to be seen whether history will treat the current generation of women political activists as dispassionately as their foremothers. But there’s little doubt that they, too, will inspire and provoke much-needed dialogue in the movement for equal rights.

    This editorial orginally appeared in the Rocky Mountain Chronicle on March 15, 2007 and is published here with permission.