Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Why Should I Care?

Written by Marguerite Nowak

 Processing the Political

My friend Caitlin votes. She signs petitions and tries to stay active. She does not, however, believe her voice matters. “The people I vote for,” she tells me, “Never get elected anyway". Caitlin is 24. She lives in San Francisco and is working on her MA in counseling. She is an intelligent, caring person and yet, she doesn’t believe she can affect change.

Processing the Political

My friend Caitlin votes. She signs petitions and tries to stay active. She does not, however, believe her voice matters. “The people I vote for never get elected anyway,” she tells me. Caitlin is twenty-four. She lives in San Francisco and is working on her MS in counseling at SF State. She is an intelligent, compassionate, and globally aware person, and yet, she doesn’t believe she can incite change.

Alice, another friend, expresses similar sentiments. She is also twenty-four and lives in Brooklyn. She graduated from Vassar College in 2005 and now works for Martha Stewart Living in advertising. “If I felt things would affect me directly, I would get involved,” she states, almost with a dismissive shrug. As smart and savvy as these young women are, they—like many of their peers—feel distanced from the overwhelming world of politics.

Chances are, if you grew up in the past decade, you felt like Caitlin and Alice at one time or another. You and your friends or family members may have protested the Iraq war, and then heard President Bush insist we “stay the course.”

Contrary to popular opinion, the political process affects all of us, and all of us can ensue change. Every day, members of Congress, state legislators, assemblymen and assemblywomen, even your local school board make decisions and vote on key legislation that make a significant difference in our lives, or have a direct impact on our community. These decisions aren’t just made in Washington. They happen at the state and local level too.

For example, a local school district may decide to cut sufficient funds for female athletic programs. A city may not provide adequate protection to women who are victims of domestic violence, or a particular state can make it difficult for young women to access reproductive health services. Some decisions that politicians make, like slashing nutrition programs for pregnant women and new moms might not affect you now, but could affect you (or women you know) later when you may need to take advantage of these programs.

With elected officials making important decisions that affect our lives in vital ways, we should and we need to make our opinions known. Right now we are being inundated with presidential campaign sound bites, mass emails and TV ads, but being involved or caring about the political process doesn’t just mean voting once every four years for president. It means making your voice heard all the time. Even if you can’t vote yet, you are a soon to be a voter and your opinion counts to elected officials.

There are more pressing reasons we, as women, need to stay especially active in the political process. Twenty years ago there were only two female senators in the U.S. Senate, and twenty-five out of the four hundred and thirty-five members in the House of Representatives were women. Twenty years later, it has gotten better, but women are still underrepresented, with only sixteen women currently in the Senate and seventy-three women in the House—barely seventeen percent. And these are considered all time highs! What this means is that the views of women are not prominent enough in our government. And as a result, our representatives vote on many issues that affect us disproportionately.

For instance, women are still not paid the same as their male counterparts while the ranks of the under-paid and low-income in this country are growing. Twenty-six million American women live in poverty and more than 50% of food stamp recipients are working moms with children. Like a game of Dominoes, issues like lack of affordable healthcare, inadequate access to educational opportunities, and malnutrition disproportionately affect those at lower incomes—often women.

As an anti-hunger advocate, I’ve seen elected officials at the local, state, and national levels champion policies to address hunger—whether Republican or Democrat, these officials are usually women. Female politicians tend to be the ones that will take on the non-glamorous social problems and want to ensure that the regular people—you and I—are taken care of. With so few women in office we need to speak up and make sure our concerns and issues don’t get drowned out.

As hard as it might be to believe (I can almost see you rolling your eyes), we do live in a democracy, and speaking out is not only a constitutional right, but, as I’ve iterated, it can actually make a difference. Politicians are concerned with what you think because they need your support in order to be successful—they are here to represent you, so when they get a phone call or a hand written note, they consider it. When voting on an issue, elected officials or their staff look at how many letters they have gotten in support or opposition to a particular issue.

Recently I saw this work in action—I had organized 400 hand-written short notes to U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer from seniors about a nutrition program being eliminated. Soon Senator Boxer came out in support of the program and Senator Feinstein voted on increasing funding for the program. And within the past year, the Department of Agriculture reversed a policy for the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program (WIC) after they received forty-seven thousand handwritten letters.

As my friend Alice put it “We [young women] have told ourselves we don’t have a voice and we believe it.” But we can change this attitude! Your voice does matter—you may not be able to reverse the course of history overnight, but at least when you look back, you will know that you have spoken up for what you believe in.

Hot Issues to Watch in 2008

* Reproductive Rights: Abortion may seem obvious, but when governments cut funding or change policies, it can be difficult to visit Planned Parenthood, get accurate sex education, or receive birth control.

*Poverty: Almost twenty-six million women in America live in poverty, meaning they don’t have enough money to pay for the basics like food, shelter, and medicine. When politicians slash funding for welfare-to-work programs or tack on more restrictions to the Food Stamp Program, low-income women are the ones that are adversely affected.

* Education: Title IX, signed into law in 1972, overhauled our educational policies and legislated that women and men must receive equal opportunities regarding education and federal financial assistance; high school and college athletics became a large focus of the law as well. Even though it has been successful in some cases, there is still more to be done as spending on men’s athletic teams at Division 1 colleges is still twice the amount spent on women’s sports. More importantly, the current administration is continually trying to weaken this legislation.
Hunger & Nutrition: Many are surprised to learn that in America more than thirty-five million people don’t have enough to eat. These families simply don’t make enough to pay for rent, medical care, and transportation, especially with the increase in gas and food. Unfortunately, food is the one expense that can be put off until later, and it’s been documented that
women are the ones in their households to give up their meals first to ensure others have enough.

* Equal Pay: On average, women only make 77 cents for every dollar that men make. For women of color, the situation is worse; on average, African American women make 71 cents and Latina women make 58 cents for every dollar that men earn. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, women earn less in every job category (and there are over 300!) than men.

* Violence: One in every four women in America are victims of domestic violence and one in six women are raped. We need to have adequate legislation that will protect women and funding for programs to treat women that have been victims of violence.

*Healthcare: This is not necessarily a female specific issue, but with almost fifty million Americans going without health insurance, this could be a problem as you enter the workforce.

How to Get Involved

*Don’t know who you elected officials are? Visit www.congress.org, type in your zip code or address, and find your local, state, and federal politicians.
In the same way that you talk to your friends, you can call, email, or write decision makers.

*Local: Write a brief note to your mayor or school superintendent about an issue you care about, like more funding for girls sports programs.

*State: Pick up the phone and tell your state representative’s office how you feel, or ask to set up a brief meeting regarding a particular issue you feel strongly about, like you don’t want an after-school program cut or you want access to places like Planned Parenthood.

*Federal: Send an email to your congressman, congresswoman, or senator by visiting his or her website; or sign a petition to save the environment or end the Iraq War at www.moveon.org.

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