Debbie Wasserman Schultz

Women and Politics - May 7, 2006

Debbie Wasserman Schultz
May 07, 2006— Nashville, Tennessee
Stennis Center for Public Service, Southern Women in Public Service Conference
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Good Evening!

Thank you Ann for your warm introduction.

To the generous sponsors and organizers of the Stennis Center for Public Service, thank you for investing in women!

I know that you have all traveled from various locations across the South to be here and I’ve reviewed the agenda, so I know you have a very busy schedule tomorrow. I also know that I am the only thing standing between you and sleep, so let me share a little secret with you, sleep is really overrated!

Seriously, it is a pleasure to be here in the Volunteer State ! I’m so delighted to see the many familiar faces of friends and colleagues that I’ve served, traveled and worked closely with during my service in the Florida Legislature.

It is also especially important that I acknowledge the many young faces that I see in the audience.

I know that we have a solid representation of women leaders from campuses throughout the South and since you are the future, I am very pleased to see you here at this conference.

And Marsha, thank you for those inspiring words. Marsha proudly represents the people of Tennessee ’s 7th Congressional District and she is a strong voice for our armed forces and energy efficiency.

Each of us here tonight has been blessed with an uncommon gift. It takes something above and beyond the average desire to devote one’s life to public service.

It is this gift that has empowered us to knock down doors that have been barred shut, and break through the glass and marble ceilings that hinder so many women across the country.

However, I am proud to say that today, there are more women serving in the United States Congress than ever before. We are working hard, proud to be there, and we are looking forward to the day when some of you sitting out in this audience will join us!

Unfortunately, with all of the great progress that we have made, our accomplishments have begun to stagnate.

Thirty years ago author Jeane Kilpatrick wrote, “Why, when women in increasing numbers are asserting themselves, training themselves, seeking equal rights, equal opportunities, and equal responsibilities in every aspect of American life, have so few [entered] the political arena?”

Sadly, this question is as poignant today as it was 30 years ago.

I was floored to learn that in 2006, the United States ranks 69th in the world in terms of women's representation in national legislatures or parliaments, out of 187 countries, as of last month. 1

Ladies, we have work to do!

In Congress, women currently hold 14 Senate seats and 70 House seats. This means women make up approximately 15 percent of Congress.

In the history of our nation, of the 11,752 Americans who have served in Congress, only 228 of them were women—that’s less than 2 percent.

Clearly, we need more women in Congress, and we need more southern women!

There are only 19 women from the South in the House and only four in the Senate.

The statistics are even more dismal for women of color and women under 40.

And, states are not much better, there have only been 25 women governors in all of American history. Eight of them are currently serving.

Across our country, 22.5% of state legislative seats are held by women. Only 4.3% are held by women of color. And, just 16.5% of the mayors of US cities, with a population of more than 30,000 residents, are women.

I say all of this because when only a small percentage of our elected officials are women, we fail to acknowledge and address all of the matters that speak to the center of people’s lives.

As you all know, all of the progress that we have made as women, and all of the progress that we seek to make, is enhanced by one thing: A seat at the table.

It is my hope that future elections will bring an array of women candidates into the field, into the state and local offices and Congress, and, just maybe, into the White House.

We need more women leaders in Washington .

Only 11 women have ever chaired standing committees in Congress, and last year only two committees in Congress were chaired by a woman.

In fact, it was not until 2004 that there was even at least one woman on every standing committee.

Think about all of the substantive debates and decisions that were made just three years ago without a single woman involved at the committee level.

This next fact is perhaps the most stunning: for all of the talk and media mulling over a woman president, only three women have ever held elected leadership positions in The Congress of the United States of America .

They are Deborah Pryce, who is the fourth highest ranking member in the House of Representatives and serves as the Chairman of the House Republican Conference, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who also served as her party’s Whip prior to becoming Leader, and Representative Margaret Chase Smith, former chair of the Senate Republican Conference.

Recently, my six-year old daughter, Rebecca, asked me if a woman could become President.

Then, a few nights later I was tucking Rebecca and her brother Jake into bed and I asked them if they liked that I was in Congress, and did they want me to win reelection?

Jake said yes, but I want you to be President!

Certainly, in the near future, I hope that my children will live in an America with a woman as Commander in Chief and not just on television!

While my children seem excited about the prospect of having a woman president, I’m not so sure about America .

Our nation doesn’t seem to be as progressive when it comes to women leaders in government as other nations.

Recently Marsha and I were both fortunate to hear Her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of the Republic of Liberia , address a joint session of Congress. In her speech she said, “I ran for President because I am determined to see good governance in Liberia in my lifetime. But I also ran because I am the mother of four, and I wanted to see our children smile and play again.”

I was so moved by her strength, compassion and quiet determination. I left the session inspired and hopeful that a nation that has experienced such strife will not just survive, but ultimately thrive under the leadership of a woman!

And, Liberia is not alone, a vast number of nations have opened the doors of governance and leadership to women.

  • 1966, India elected Indira Ghandi to be prime minister.
  • 1969, Israel elected Golda Meir to be prime minister.
  • 1979, the United States ’ closest ally, Great Britain , elected Margaret Thatcher Prime Minister.
  • 1988, Pakistan elected Benazir Bhutto Prime Minister.
  • 1990 and 1997, Ireland elected two women presidents back-to-back.

And in the past year, Germany elected Angela Merkel Chancellor, Chile ’ just elected Michelle Bachelet President and Jamaica elected Portia Simpson Miller Prime Minister.

And so I say, Why not America ? It’s certainly not because we have a shortage of “qualified” women--just looking across this room, it is clear that there is no shortage of women who can lead!

How did this happen? How did we get here?

We all know the usual road blocks that we as women face and we know what to do when we see those coming. But what about the things we, as women, do to ourselves and to each other?

Most women do not run for public office until they are older, when their children are self-sufficient, whereas many men are less concerned with this issue. Thus, women are more likely to run later in life, leaving less time to climb the political ladder and serve on the national level or in leadership.

But women can have it all. I’m here tonight to tell you that we can have it all, we can strike the balance and don’t let anyone stop you from fulfilling your dreams or your passion to be a public servant.

I stand before you as the mother of three beautiful young children under the age of 7.

I was 26 years old when I first ran for office--the youngest woman ever elected to serve in the history of the Florida Legislature.

I am now one of the youngest Members serving in the United States Congress and one of only three mothers with young children.

People often ask me if it is difficult having three children and working the job that I have now. And I say some days, sure it is. But I ran precisely for them, I ran to improve their lives and the lives of future generations.

When I was running for Congress my youngest daughter, Shelby , was still breastfeeding. How did I do it? Well, Shelby was my running mate!

It seems like everyone I bump into now has a story about meeting with me during the campaign and being shocked, surprised, and proud to see that I had my newborn daughter with me.

Well, maybe not everyone was proud. . .

During my campaign, my opponent was down in the polls and looking for something to run on against me. So, she decided to call me a bad mother.

She would say that I was a bad mother in just about any forum she could, but she was not getting much attention.

Eventually, a reporter called and said that my opponent had made an accusation that during our last debate I did not have a pen, and had to use a crayon instead.

She told the reporter that this was a sign that I led a “frazzled life” and was therefore unprepared to be a Member of Congress.

I remember this next part very clearly now, because while I am seldom at a loss for words, I never quite pull off a zinger on the first sentence.

I told the reporter that she should write this down: “All that proves is that I didn’t have a pen--and while as a mother I am often without a pen--I am never without a crayon.”

Yes, my lifestyle is fast-paced and rigorous, but I make it work with a lot of support. It’s all about balance. For instance, my staff knows I fly home each week after votes end to be with my family, and I am even my daughter’s Brownie troop leader.

Make no mistake, it’s not easy, but together, as women, we can do it, we always have!

Some days are harder than others, but I am proud to be both a mother and an elected official.

It’s all worth it.

Being a mom gives me a unique perspective on the work I do each day that others might not bring to the table.

Recently, I passed an amendment on methylmercury food warning labels for fish, an issue that affects the health and well-being of children across the country.

Later this week I plan to introduce pool safety legislation to establish layers of protection to keep our children safe.

It’s times like this, when I have a chance to do something that will affect and improve my children’s lives, and their children’s lives, and your children’s lives—it’s time like this that’s when I know I have made the right decision.

We as women make many of the key decisions in families that politics should focus on, which makes us ideal public servants.

Women are the primary care givers in families, often making the healthcare decisions.

Women are more likely than men to care for elderly parents, and, since women often outlive their spouse, we are more likely to deal with long-term care situations and make the many complex decisions surrounding those matters.

Women are more likely to care for children, are more likely to make the decisions about children’s daycare, pre-school, after-care and they are more likely to personally interact with their children’s teachers.

This is why I decided to run for public office; and I know it’s the reason so many of you chose public service. We wanted to have a role in making sure that our government addresses the needs of women, children and families, as only a woman can.

For the women who are raising children, many of them on minimum wage, and who can't afford health care or child care, and whose lives are threatened by domestic violence, we must lead! For mothers who are fighting for safe neighborhoods and quality public education for their children- we must lead!

For women who are working all night as nurses so that they can be at home during the day with their kids- we must lead!

And, for women everywhere who simply don’t have the time to do everything they are called upon to do each day-we must lead!

I am proud to be a woman in public office, and it’s important to me that my two daughters and all young girls see strong women in all walks of life and understand that, from Title IX to Equal Pay, they are standing on the shoulders of courageous women.

Isn’t that why we’re all here? To shape and encourage more women to run for public office and make public service their life’s work.

The surest way to increase the number of women in government is to start right here.

You are exactly who we must focus our energy on: the uncommonly bright, promising, and passionate faces staring back at me this evening is where it begins.

We need you and we need more women at all levels of government!

Because Margaret Thatcher once said, “in politics, if you want anything said, ask a man – but, if you want anything done, ask a woman.

Thank you. Enjoy the remainder of your training this week!

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