Will more women in public office solve what ails America?

News events seem to have caught up with the speculation I raised in the August Labor Press and in a related online story last week about Emerge America: Has the time truly arrived for the widespread emergence of progressive women in politics?

Lots of political savvy Democrats seem to think so.

Rep. Tammy Baldwin, one of the US House’s busiest liberals with a clear vision of public service, is running to replace Herb Kohl in the US Senate, the only announced Democrat. Meanwhile, the state GOP is scuffling about whether Tommy Thompson has swung far enough into the trees to woo the Tea Party and whether Mark Neumann has swung so far up into the extreme right-wing branches that he can no longer win the center, especially after criticizing Scott Walker in the primary as not experienced enough and not conservative enough (remember?) for governor.

In Massachusetts, where the senate seat has seesawed from Kennedy to Brown while the governor’s mansion has similarly whipsawed from Romney to Patrick, a champion of consumer protection, Elizabeth Warren (probably the current national definition of brainy progressive woman), is the hottest explorer for a senate campaign. That Warren type trend is popping up in other states as well.

Wisconsin’s replacement elections dumped men or are empowering a heady share of women to move against Walker supporters – and some of those Walker acolytes have further put their seats in jeopardy by trying to run for other offices on his coattails or isolating their seats by seeking to serve in his administration. On top of that, as things are shaping up, many of the April nonpartisan races for judicial, county, municipal and school board offices will feature female candidates claiming to make a difference.

Already, Joanne Kloppenburg — the balanced, thoughtful assistant attorney general under several administrations who came out of nowhere to end within a few thousand votes of David Prosser for the Wisconsin Supreme Court (in a lost-votes story that continues to stain Waukesha County’s reputation) — has announced she will run for a vacancy on the District 4 Appeals Court. The state is divided into four appeals districts and this is one of the most influential — anchored in Dane County and other south and west communities where Kloppenburg won handily over Prosser.

Whether Kloppenburg is progressive (she has never telegraphed her partisan leanings as Prosser has), her candidacy reflects the sort of reasoned even-tempered woman open to argument that many candidates in judicial contests around the state will now be required to reassure voters about.

But really, has the time come for progressive women? You’ll get an argument in traditional media and even on suburban streets. Only partly supported by national polls but certainly thumped upon by big money right-wing media, the political outlook is that the nation is far too conservative for a wave of progressive (usually liberal Democrat) women to succeed in being elected to major public office.

On the other side are forward-looking thinkers who have noted how much America is changing and how more national polls reflect profound movement across the political spectrum.

Sexual orientation or religious affiliation — or lack of either — is not an issue for many voters under 30, and for a growing number of older voters no longer buffaloed by old myths and views of what matters in public service. That’s a backlash against constantly proclaiming morality by politicians who seem to behave quite differently behind closed doors. When you look at how the consumer has been treated, and how many are women, the simply transparency advocated by Warren and blocked by tired old GOP carries quite a weight.

Still, 2010 was clearly reactionary old school not progressive in the liberal sense of the term, and if things are changing, in the summer of 2011 Wisconsin demonstrated hardly all the way.

But nationally as well as locally, the body electorate does seem to be in transition. This may be a natural reaction to the reluctance of congressional Republicans to do anything to help the country if it might also help Obama. A lot of voters have had it with these old ways and obstinacy.

Within the state, you can credit Gov. Walker’s excessive attack on basic family rights as too obvious a political catering to the tired policies of his richest supporters, many living out of state.

So however you read the causations, or whether you think the timing is too early or just ripe, Wisconsin progressives have clearly made gains. And much of it has come from turning to women.

The national press of all political persuasions looked at the recall election results in August and now talks about parity between conservative and liberal in the electorate, where once they saw only red. Further, many of the media’s stories are about how many women have been activated. It has been women, unheralded and often unknown women, who have been a key to this social advancement.

There is also growing recognition that the chauvinist extremism paralyzing the nation — and we are not just talking about men but about the ugliest, bigoted, over-the-top religiosity side of partisanship — might not have happened except for the paucity of brainy, compassionate women in public office. That may well be holding the nation back from new ways of looking at issues, empathizing with everyday problems and talking about fresh solutions in public chambers.

Barbara Lawton, the former Wisconsin lieutenant governor, takes both political parties to task for making women’s reproductive health the first slash in balancing budgets at both the state and federal level.

US Rep. Barbara Lee and other members of Progressive Congress touring America lamented our historic dependence on war and physical conflict to solve political disputes and spoke of how women felt helpless in the face of this tendency toward violence that destroyed their families.

Men as well as women complain aloud that the dead hands and old habits of power, control and philosophy dominate the national debate. At a time when more businesses are turning to women leaders to promote sales and innovation, their historic attitudes that women are worth less than men have come back to slap them down. If businesses better valued women as employees and customers, many gurus of Wall Street now say, perhaps we could shake off these economic doldrums and create more value rather than frills in the nation’s products.

The Tea Party influence on the GOP may have set the cause of women back in 2010, though the media continues to be fascinated by the Tweeter women at the top of the pile. All that coverage makes it seem that women are more prominent in public office. The facts reveal that a lot of women, established and forward-moving public servants, were displaced in 2010 – in fact, there are fewer women in influential policy positions than before, even in state houses, where the presence of Tea Party elected females has to be balanced against their submissive catering to the creaky ideas and lobby-happy habits of male right-wingers.

Women may have voted less for Democrats in 2010 but they hardly replaced them with women. In fact, despite the toxicity of how females view the current Congress, their votes actually increased the number of men — many political veterans, many insiders eager to play the hoary games both in D.C. and in statehouses.

The times have changed, as many articles and politicians point out. The keynote speaker at Milwaukee’s Legal Aid Society ceremonies September 8, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, noted it was hardly coincidence that the three honorees for the equal justice award were women – Dominican Sister Ann Halloran, Benedict Center innovator Kit McNally and labor council CFO Sheila Cochran. And much of his following speech was devoted to the need for more progressive women in public office.

In the 1960s – an era that the right-wing still demeans because of the advance of civil rights, peace movements, Medicare and, gasp, feminism — classified ads even in major liberal newspapers like the New York Times were still categorizing careers by gender. That was also an era when only 38% of women attended college and only 11% earned Ph Ds.

Today 57% of US college graduates are women. More than half of Ph Ds go to women. According to US Dept. of Labor, of the 122 million US women age 16 years and over, 72 million, or 59.2%, were labor force participants — working or looking for work. Women comprise 46.8% of the total US labor force. And nearly half of union membership is female.

Now look at public office – minimal representation for the maximum gender.
Currently of 100 US senators, 17 are women. Women lost seats in the House. And only three states out of 50 – Maine, Connecticut and Hawaii – can boast gender parity in their US House representatives even while the census reveals more adult women than men in the US.

In Wisconsin, 23% of the Wisconsin legislature are women. 15% of City Councils have no women and of the 12,935 town and village board seats, only 2,646 are held by women.

The statistics cited confirm the push for progressive women in public office is long overdue – and under the tireless promotion of leader Karen Middleton, Emerge America pumps its solution that these should be women tied to the progressive wing of the Democrat Party.

What some once saw as a sliver movement in the need to get more women running, Emerge seems the Rosetta Stone of success – putting potential candidates through their paces and preparation in how to understand policies, talk about issues, use the Democratic principles, network with men and women, raise money and dig deep into the grassroots. (In fact, one new state senator, Jessica King, is actually an Emerge Wisconsin graduate.)

It’s been working, which may be why the national media is paying attention and why Emerge Wisconsin, headed by executive director Wendy Strout, has been singled out by state Democrats and moved up its planned training classes and publicity efforts.

The fact that progressive women are a hot topic for male political leaders such as Abele, the reality of these statistics, the gains of candidates across the nation, reflect that the dream of more progressive women in public office – more independent women in general — is turning into a genuine mission. And something of a nightmare for the Republican Party.