The following is Part II of my email interview with the gracious, intelligent, fiery and fabulous feminist, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, after reading her book: “Rumors of Our Progress Have Been Greatly Exaggerated.”
MadamaB: Your writing shows a real talent for framing that is sadly lacking in too many Democratic policiticans’ lexicons. For example, you make a great point that strip-club visits are considered tax-deductible, but child-care expenses aren’t. Have you had any success with framing the comparison the way you do in the book?
CM: Every once in a while you have an ‘aha’ moment – when you see the absolute correctness of a particular position. How you frame an issue helps other people have that ‘aha’ moment. Sometimes you get there by giving your issue a face – I called my DNA bill after Debbie Smith, a woman whose rapist was identified because of a cold hit after her DNA kit was processed. The prosecutors were able to obtain a conviction because of the DNA contained in the rape kit. Debbie came to be the representative of hundreds of thousands of women whose rape kits were gathering dust on the shelf. Every one of those kits belongs to a woman who has a compelling story, and we couldn’t tell all of them. But we could tell Debbie’s, and we could talk about what happened to her, and how processing the DNA in her kit made all the difference. And it helped other members of Congress understand the importance of passing my bill because they understood what happened to Debbie.
MadamaB: Another great frame is your concept of a bipartisan “decency deficit” Could you explain what you mean by that?
CM: Many on the right talk about ‘family values’ which often translates to being anti-choice, anti-gay and, I would argue, anti-family. How can you be for family values if you do not support laws that protect work/life balance? The most important values in my view are what I would call human values: tolerance, compassion, generosity, honesty, humility. Or, to sum it up in one word: decency. Over the past seven years we’ve had an inordinate abuse of power, arrogance, disregard for the constitution – in short, a decency deficit. We need to restore the decency and provide basic needs for those who require it most. We’re the richest nation in the world, but we don’t have paid family leave or paid sick leave. We have no child care system. Health care is unaffordable for millions of American families. As a nation, we need to pay down the decency deficit and restore human values – and I believe women will have a lot to do with that.
MadamaB: In the book, you demonstrate how punitive the second-income tax is to working women. Is this a secondary result of conservative anti-government activism, or do you feel it was specifically intended to punish women?
CM: The marriage penalty is probably an unintended consequence of an effort to end a system that some people felt discriminated against single people. I was surprised to learn that it was adopted in 1969, just before the women’s rights movement gained momentum. There are scholars who are far more expert than I in this subject. I would recommend a wonderful book by Edward J. McCaffery, Taxing Women, who has explored this subject in great detail.
MadamaB: You mention that you have counted at least 176 anti-choice measures that the Republicans have put forth in order to decrease womens’ ability to control their own bodies. Is this a result of the debt today’s Republican Party owes to the evangelical Christian Right?
CM: The Republican Party has largely embraced a pro-life agenda, whether because of the individual philosophy of its members, or in reaction to pressure from its constituents. The pro-life movement is very organized, very determined and very flexible. They started with abortion, but they’re moving on to birth control. They even oppose emergency contraception (EC), although EC will not work if a woman is already pregnant. I believe in a woman’s right to choose; I believe that it should be a decision made by a woman in consultation with her doctor; and I believe that it is a constitutionally protected right that is hanging dangerously on the brink of being overturned. I announced for Congress on the day the Casey decision came down, eroding two of the pillars of Roe v. Wade, and I intend to do whatever I can to protect our reproductive rights.
MadamaB: There seem to be some indicators that the Republican Party may be jettisoning the evangelical Christian Right lately: the statement of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger regarding gay marriage: the Party’s choice of Senator John McCain over Pastor Mike Huckabee for its nominee; and McCain’s recent rejection of Pastor Hagee’s endorsement. Do you think it’s possible that the Party could be considering such a move?
CM: I learned long ago never to speak for anyone else or to try to guess which way they plan to go.
MadamaB: Does it disturb you that the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee, Senator Barack Obama, is so intent on courting evangelical voters? It seems to be having detrimental consequences already on the Party’s traditionally pro-choice stance.
CM: The first rule in politics is that you have to win to be able to accomplish anything. I do not believe Senator Obama can win if he turns his back on the Democratic Party’s many pro-choice voters.
MadamaB: You make an excellent case that our country’s current policy towards health care is causing our people, and disproportionally our women, to suffer unnecessary poverty, bankruptcy, illness and death. Can you explain what real health care reform would look like to you?
CM: There are many plans out there, and I would be happy to support any of them that make health care more accessible and affordable. Medicare has been an exceptional system that has provided high quality health care to our seniors with very low administrative costs. That’s a model that has worked well. I’m sure there are others that can also work.
MadamaB: Finally, you state that there is a critical mass for women in government. Once 30% of our representatives are women, women’s issues begin to be addressed. The United States is nowhere near that critical mass yet. I noticed that a lot of the legislation you sponsored had female Republican co-sponsors.
Voters in red states sometimes face this choice: a moderate Republican woman or a conservative Democratic man. Do you think it would be better from a strategic standpoint to go with the moderate Republican woman, if she has a good record on women’s issues?
CM: I would never tell anyone how to vote. That’s a personal decision and one that one must make. Of course, I am a Democrat and strongly support Democratic candidates because I know that the first vote any member makes is for Speaker. The Speaker determines the agenda and what comes to the floor for a vote. Unfortunately, the Republican majority is currently dominated by people who have not been supportive of women’s issues, and those are the ones who are likely to be leading their party. That being said, I believe that the best legislation is bi-partisan. In all my efforts, I try to work in a bi-partisan way.
I thank Congresswoman Maloney for her time and her thorough and fascinating responses to my questions.