Juanita Millender-McDonald

National League of Cities - March 11, 2002

Juanita Millender-McDonald
March 11, 2002— U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, DC
Congressional floor speech
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First of all, I would like to thank the former Women in Municipal Government (WIMG) president and Mayor of Monrovia, California, Lara Larramendi Blakely for her very kind words of introduction.

Secondly, I would also like to extend my thanks to the president of WIMG and Council President Pro Tem of Selma, Alabama, Rita Sims Franklin, for inviting me to speak to you on this auspicious occasion.

I would also like to acknowledge the women mayors, council presidents and council members here today.

Women in Municipal Government is an effective and admirable organization, designed to serve as a forum for communication and networking among women municipal officials.

I am a former city council member - and mayor - of the city of Carson, California. Indeed, I was the first African-American woman to be elected to the Carson City Council. Four years later, I was the first African-American woman to be elected to the California State Legislature from the same district.

During my time in municipal government, I came to value the wisdom, knowledge and compassion of many women colleagues. When I was a new councilor in Carson, I often turned to women for help and guidance. Later - when I was experienced and knowledgeable myself - I was able to help and mentor other women who were at the beginning of their careers. For these reasons, it gives me very great pleasure to address you today.

I am often asked - as is I am sure every woman in this room - why we need more women in politics? Why keep on pushing for more women mayors - more women councilors - and more women in Congress.

Well - the truth is - women do make a difference. Researchers have found that women do make a difference, especially when it comes to protecting women and children. (Michele Swers and Amy Caiazza, "Transforming the Political Agenda? Gender Differences in Bill Sponsorship on Women's Issues", 2000.)

It is women who have worked - hard - to protect victims of domestic violence and sexual harassment - to create programs for women-owned businesses - to establish gender equity programs in education - to increase access to child care for welfare recipients - and have taken hundreds of other women-centered initiatives.

I have been asked to speak to you today about my role as the Democratic Chair of the Congressional Caucus on Women's Issues - which is usually called the Women's Caucus. I will also tell you something about the legislation that is important and relevant to me. And - finally - I will talk a bit about myself - and the people and events that motivated me to enter a life of service to the community.

This year is the Silver Anniversary of the Women's Caucus. Its history began when it was formed in 1977 - it was a significant new force coming out of the Women's Movement.

The Women's Caucus has a national constituency - Congresswomen from all the states - and from both parties - are invited to join.

The original purposes for setting up the Women's Caucus have remained unchanged. Amongst other criteria, the founders wanted to provide a forum for women members of Congress to speak out on critical public policy issues - especially issues of particular concern to women.

They also wanted to develop leadership by and among the women Members of Congress in light of the historic and continuing under-representation of women in Congress.

When the Caucus was formed 25 years ago, 15 women belonged. Today, 62 women are Members of the House of Representatives - 44 Democrats and 18 Republicans. 61 of those women belong to the Women's Caucus. (The only one who does not belong is a Republican, Rep. Anne Northrup, from Kentucky.)

The Congresswomen come from 27 states, the District of Columbia, and the Virgin Islands. They are African American, Latina, Asian American, and Caucasian. Together, they bring to Congress a wealth of experience as mayors - state legislators - community activists - lawyers - and many other professions - as well as mothers and grandmothers.

What has the Women's Caucus achieved? Since 1977, we have worked - successfully - to improve the lives of women and families.

We have fought to open the doors of opportunity for women and girls in both school and work. We have championed fair credit - tougher child support enforcement - equitable pay - and retirement income.

We have led efforts to promote women's health and protect victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, securing several billion dollars for these efforts.

When it was formed, the Caucus was considered to be a legislative service organization and - as such - was given accommodation, staff and a budget in Congress. It was highly productive and effective for 18 years. All that changed with the 104th Congress.

In January 1995, the House of Representatives voted to abolish legislative service organizations. Almost immediately, the Women's Caucus lost its office, its staff and its accommodation.

Some people thought that the Women's Caucus would not survive - but it has. The Congresswomen reorganized themselves into a Members' organization - and kept the same name, same goals and resolve.

Today, the Women's Caucus operates out of members' personal offices. For instance - in my office - members of my personal staff coordinate and manage caucus matters.

One staffer in each member's office acts as the caucus contact. These aides meet every week to coordinate their work - caucus members meet at least once a month.

The Caucus holds briefings and meetings for members, staff, colleagues in the House, and outside groups on legislative priorities.

The influence of the Women's Caucus extends far beyond its impressive list of legislative achievements affecting domestic policy. We have championed women's issues around the globe. A recent example of this is our work concerning Afghan women.

Many Afghan women's groups looked for support and assistance from the Women's Caucus. They asked not just for financial assistance but - equally important - our help to ensure that their rights would be respected and they would be able to play a full part in the reconstruction of their shattered country.

The Women's Caucus was able to play a pivotal role in the negotiations. The result was the Afghan Women and Children Relief Act of 2001, which was signed into law by President Bush on December 12, 2001.

Significantly, the signing took place at the National Museum of Women and the Arts. I was there - at this moving, historic and memorable event - as the Democratic Chair of the Women's Caucus.

Last Friday was International Women's Day and the Women's Caucus was involved in weeklong activities promoted by Lifetime Television. The theme of the week was - Stop Violence Against Women.

The result of these weeklong activities was the introduction of an important resolution supporting the goals of International Women's Day. Those goals recognize that women worldwide contribute to the growth of economics -participate in the world of diplomacy and politics - and improve the quality of the lives of their families, communities and nations.

The resolution also makes the point that pervasive discrimination continues to deny women full political and economic equality - and that the lives and health of women and girls continues to be endangered by violence which is directed at them simply because they are women or girls.

As women - and members of WIMG - you all can appreciate the devastating effect that the cycle of misery and destruction - brought about by domestic violence - has on our communities.

As Women's Caucus members, we want to support the community agencies that help battered women and their children.

As well as my role with the Women's Caucus, I am also very busy with my committees and sub-committees.

As the ranking member on the Small Business Empowerment Committee, I have taken a deep interest in small business enterprises and been a strong advocate for women's business councils and centers.

As you know, the diabolical events of September 11 have had serious repercussions for the American economy. Many small businesses have been badly affected - indeed some have not been able to reopen at all.

To help this situation - as the ranking member of the House Small Business Committee's Sub-Committee on Workforce, Empowerment and Government Programs - I am planning a field hearing in Los Angeles at the end of March. We will focus on the pressing issues affecting small businesses and will be looking for solutions to the problems they are facing in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.

Women-owned, minority and small businesses are confronted with enormous challenges regarding growing their businesses. A tremendous impediment for them is the availability of capital.

In the aftermath of the events of September 11, I have supported legislation that would provide grants to small businesses in lieu of Physical Disaster Loans and Economic Injury Disaster Assistance Loans. These loans pose a hardship because business people have to put up collateral - such as their homes. Should they default on their loan, these unfortunate people could lose their houses.

A second issue relating to the Small Business Committee is an amendment I offered to H.R. 3230 - the American Small Business Emergency Relief and Recovery Act of 2001. My amendment increases the authorization for appropriations to assist with technical assistance to Women's Business Centers.

I am also a member the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and - three - sub-committees - Highways and Transit - Aviation - and Water Resources and Environment.

As you can imagine, this is quite a workload. But I can tell you that the major concern for the committee is Homeland Security as it impacts on the national infrastructure.

Our nation entered a new era of security awareness in the wake of the attacks and nowhere is that felt more strongly than in the field of transportation.

It is a challenge that confronts us in all transportation modes - from aviation to railways, highways, pipelines and waterways. With this concern uppermost in my mind, I introduced a bill - The Terrorism Threat to Public Transportation Act of 2001 - which directs the Secretary of Transportation - in consultation with the heads of other appropriate federal agencies - to conduct an assessment of terrorist-related threats to all forms of public transportation such as bus, air, and rail terminals.

America's ports are our nation's economic gateways to the world, as well as centers for travel and tourism. As part of the Defense Appropriations for the 2001 Fiscal Year, I voted for a provision that will provide some $93 million for port security.

In addition, we in Congress are working on a comprehensive port security bill that will coordinate programs to enhance the security and safety of our seaports against crime and terrorism.

The Reauthorization of the Transportation Equity Act 21 (TEA-21) is going to be another huge undertaking for the committee. TEA-21 has provided a tremendous boost to the nation's transportation system as well as to national, state, and local economics.

I'm convinced that the policies and directions of the federal-aid transportation program have benefited the personal safety - the mobility - and the movement of goods and services throughout this great country. More importantly, TEA-21 has improved the quality of life of all citizens.

Another of my initiatives in this area is to plan a Regional Transit Summit in Southern California for the spring or summer this year. Work has already begun on developing the format and the themes that we will be covering in this exciting convention.

This talk has been a brief description of my role as a Congresswoman and Democratic Chair of the Women's Caucus. You might wonder what motivates me to take on such a heavy workload when I could be at home - taking things easy - and enjoying the company of my five grandchildren.

The answer lies in my childhood. My first mentor was my father. Because my mother died when I was just three-and-a-half years old, my father played a very important role in my life. He was a Baptist preacher in Birmingham, Alabama, and it was his guidance and encouragement that led me into a life of service.

Growing up during the stormy days of the Civil Rights Movement, my formative years were colored by the spirit and courage of countless individuals who - during the 1950s and 1960s - dared to confront the bigotry and racial discrimination of American society.

Later on, when I was a young wife with five tiny children, I was inspired by the words of President John Kennedy. When I heard saw him in California - and heard him speak - it was as though he was speaking directly to me. He spoke of liberation, freedom and justice - he had the ability to put into words the feelings of a nation - and he inspired me to seek a political career.

I have also found inspiration in the successes of the women who have gone before me. In each step of my journey, I have reflected on the women pioneers who broke through barriers in an effort to help women achieve equality.

I honor those pioneers - visionaries such as Sojourner Truth, Eleanor Roosevelt, Dr Dorothy Height, and Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to Congress - who were instrumental in creating the opportunities that exist for women today.

I do see myself as being on a mission - and my mission is to promote women's healthy survival and to celebrate their achievements.

I also see myself as a mentor for young women and - as a mentor - I encourage all women to realize their own potential as visionaries and leaders. It is because of the Elizabeth Cady Stantons, the Rosa Parks and the Shirley Chisholms that change was accomplished.

It is imperative that we continue to speak out for positive change. As women, our voices and initiatives will enable us to achieve the lives we want - and deserve.

I applaud your own service and wish you continued success in your good work and efforts.