Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues "Truly Bipartisan"

By Michelle Austein
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington - Women in the U.S. Congress hold differing views, yet most work together in a bipartisan fashion as members of the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues to promote better opportunities for women worldwide.

Caucus members draw attention to women's issues internationally by working to assist women's groups in Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries and to increase funding for these groups. Members of the caucus were instrumental in the March 6 approval of a House resolution commemorating International Women's Day, which was March 8. The resolution "recognizes and honors the women in the United States and in other countries who have fought and continue to struggle for equality in the face of adversity."

"This is a historic time for the Congressional Women's Caucus," Congresswoman Lois Capps said in a March 6 press release announcing the organization's 30th anniversary. "Serving under the leadership of the first woman speaker with a record number of women members, the Women's Caucus is uniquely poised to have a greater voice than ever before in shaping the agenda of the Congress and the nation."

Capps, a Democrat from California, is co-chair of the caucus along with Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican from Washington state. The female legislators "are helping to prove that woman can indeed accomplish anything," McMorris Rodgers said in the press release.

All 74 female members from the House of Representatives (including three nonvoting delegates) are invited to participate in the caucus. While the Senate does not have a women's caucus, the 16 female senators often meet together informally. The 110th Congress has the most females ever in a U.S. Congress. (See related article.)

Caucus members are proud of their work to improve women's status globally, said Cindy Hall, president of Women's Policy Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides staff support for the caucus.

The caucus is unique because it is truly bipartisan, Hall said in an interview with USINFO. "I would be surprised if there is any similar group … that includes more points of view, politically speaking," she said. While the women represent "every possible viewpoint," she added, they come together to promote issues they find to be important to all women. Part of the bipartisan success is due to the fact that members understand that there are issues, such as abortion, on which they will be unlikely to agree. They choose to focus on the issues where common ground can be reached, Hall said.

The caucus's goals for the 110th Congress include passing legislation to improve the prevention and treatment of heart disease in women, increase efforts to promote math and science education for girls and women, address sex trafficking and domestic violence worldwide and place more women's artwork in the Capitol.

The caucus "has made significant progress in the last 30 years by advancing issues that affect women and their families," said Vice Chair Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat from Illinois.

During the group's history, caucus members from both parties have worked together to create landmark legislation. This includes the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which grants employees up to 12 weeks of job-protected, unpaid leave for the birth of a child or the care of a child, spouse or parent who has a serious health condition, and the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, which provides safeguards for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

With only 15 members at its founding in 1977, the organization originally was called the Congresswomen's Caucus. In 1981, men were invited to join, and more than 100 chose to do so. At that time, the name was changed to the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues.

In 1995, a law was passed prohibiting members from paying dues out of their office accounts, a step that forced most caucuses to stop employing staff of their own. As a result, the women's caucus eliminated its staff. Women's Policy Inc. now does the work of the caucus staff. Also in 1995, the caucus decided again to restrict membership to women. However, the members frequently work with their male counterparts to achieve their goals, Hall said.

There are about 200 caucuses - informal groups based on shared interests on an issue - in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.  The term “caucus” refers to both the group and the meeting it holds. (See related article.)

The text of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 can be found on the U.S. Library of Congress Web site.

Excerpts from the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 can be found on the Department of Justice Web site.

For more information, see U.S. Congress.