‘Leading Compromise’: US Women Senators Confront the Political Impasse in October 2013

by Veronica Strong-Boag

womenSince the suffrage crusades, both scholars and popular observers have debated whether women would make a difference to ‘old boy’ agendas. Given many women’s subsequent identification with partisan politics, the discipline imposed by party whips and other pressures to toe the line, not to mention the multiple loyalties (of class, race, etc.) they share with other groups, and not always with one another, skepticism is understandable. There are nonetheless enough instances of political ‘sisterhoods’ that cross party lines to hearten the hopeful.

Such seems to have been the case when US Democrats (a majority in the Senate) and Republicans (a majority in the House of Representatives) stood at daggers drawn in the summer and fall of 2013. The former’s determination to, at long last, extend public medical insurance (albeit under far more constrained conditions than other leading western democracies) was fiercely opposed by the latter, notably its Tea Party hardliners. For weeks, much of the US federal government was shut down and fears grew of a national default. That disaster was averted, at least for the time being, by the compromise reached a bipartisan Senate committee composed of six women and eight men.  Immediate commentators credited women senators with leadership.

Women’s influence and numbers has been growing since the election of the 103rd Congress (1993-1995), familiarly referred to as the ‘Year of the Woman’. This survived the return of a Republican-controlled House of Representatives with the 104th Congress (1995-1997), known as the ‘Year of the Angry White Male’ (Dodson). By 2013, the 113th Congress included a record 20 women senators — 16 Democrats and four Republicans. By then too, some women had gained substantial credibility as senior members and chairs of nine significant committees, including both Budget and Appropriations.  Susan Collins of Maine, one of the three female Republicans on the bipartisan 2013 committee, was regarded as her party’s “most powerful moderate.” At least as influential was women’s habit, vigorously encouraged by the longest-serving female senator, Barbara Mikulski (Maryland), Chair of the Appropriations Committee, of getting together socially for dinners, showers and children’s playdates, and their  “practice of meeting regularly and working on smaller bills together, even in a highly polarized Congress” (Weisman and Steinhauer).

In 2010, Democratic Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand, from New York, and Collins had championed the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” For the first time openly gay and lesbian military personnel were allowed to serve. Three years later, all four female Republican senators voted with Democrats for the Violence Against Women Act (Steinhauer). Furthering a sense of ‘sisterhood,’ was the unwritten rule not to criticize each other publicly and a recognition, as one member explained, of  “a different life experience than a lot of senior guys in the room” (N. Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp quoted in Newton-Small, “Women”). Shared experience of sexism before and after election helped as well (Netwon-Small, “11 Things”). While the larger group of Democrats benefitted from the better alignment of core party values with liberal feminism, Republican women moderates remained sensitive to the gendered impact of public policy (See Swers). In September and October 2013, the disproportionate injury inflicted on women workers and recipients of state services by the closure of many federal offices was easy to observe.

Women’s talent for compromise and getting things done proved popular. The bipartisan meeting of women senators was quickly joined by male moderates, including Republican John McCain (Arizona), who wondered “what they could do if there were 50 of them” (quoted Newton-Small, “Women”). The resulting compromise (one favouring the Democratic position) pulled the US back from the brink of financial disaster (though this threat was denied by the Tea Party).

The crisis in American politics was nevertheless only postponed to 2014 when budget approval would once again be needed. In the meantime, both parties and their women members will be sounding voters, who come to the polls in mid-term elections in November 2014.  What will the electorate make of women’s bipartisan leadership when 33 Senate seats are up for grabs and will the impact for Democrats and Republican women, since the latter have traditionally had a harder time in winning their party nomination, be the same (Dittmar)? The result will offer a substantial comment on women’s role in American politics.



Anzia, Sarah F. and Christopher R. Berry. “The Jackie (and Jill) Robinson Effect: Why Do Congresswomen Outperform Congressmen?” American Journal of Political Science 55 (2011): 478-93.

Dittmar, Kelly. “Primary problems: Women Candidates in U.S. House Primaries,” Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics. 3 Oct. 2013, http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/research/documents/Primary-Problems-10-1-13.pdf, accessed 27 Oct. 2013.

Dodson, Debra L., The Impact of Women in Congress (NY: Oxford University Press, 2006).

Newton-Small, Jay. “11 Things You Don’t Know About the Senate Sisterhood.” Time. 16 Oct. 2013, http://swampland.time.com/2013/10/16/11-things-you-dont-know-about-the-senate-sisterhood/

Newton-Small. “Women Are the Only Adults Left in Washington,” Time. 16 Oct. 2013 http://swampland.time.com/2013/10/16/women-are-the-only-adults-left-in-washington/.

Osborn, Tracy L. How Women Represent Women: Political Parties, Gender and Representation (NY: Oxford University Press, 2012).

Rosenthal, Cindy Simon, ed. Women Transforming Congress (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002).

Steinhauer, Jennifer. “Women Make New Gains in the Senate.” New York Times. 21 March 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/22/us/politics/women-make-new-gains-in-the-senate.html

Swers, Michele. Women in the Club: Gender and Policy Making in the Senate (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

Weisman, Jonathan and Jennifer Steinhauer, “Senate Women Lead in Effort to Find Accord.” New Tork Times. 14 Oct. 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/15/us/senate-women-lead-in-effort-to-find-accord.html?_r=0

Wendy Davis: Standing tall against the anti-choice movement in Texas

Wendy Russell Davis (b 16 May 1963)

By Kelsey Wrightson

Image from Wikimedia commons

Wendy Davis is an American lawyer and Democratic senator from Fort Worth, Texas. One of four children raised by a single mother, by 14, she was selling newspaper subscriptions and working part-time. She had the first of two daughters when she was 19 years old, subsequently working her way through Harvard Law School as a single mother.

Davis entered politics through the Fort Worth City Council in 1999, and served for nine years. In 2008 she was elected to the Texas Senate, District 10, narrowly defeating male Republican Kim Brimer. Upon entering a House dominated by Republicans and men, she began ruffling the feathers of conservative colleagues, labeling the Senate environment hostile to women and proposing multiple amendments to many bills. Davis serves as the Vice-Chair on the Senate Select Committee for Open Government, and is a member of the Committees on Economic Development, Transportation, Veteran Affairs and Military Installations.

Davis was re-elected in 2012, the same year that her offices were firebombed, an attack that remains unsolved, but speculation links it to her support of Planned Parenthood (Pieklo). Despite this attack, she has continued to be a vehement supporter of women’s rights. Her stance is most obvious in her successful 25 June 2013 filibuster of Senate Bill 5, a draconian law that attempts to dramatically reduce access to abortion. This was not the first time that Senator Davis has used radical tactics in the Texas State Senate. In June 2011, she filibustered the 82nd Legislative Assembly, preventing a $4 billion cut from public education sponsored by Governor Rick Perry.  However the 25 June filibuster gathered more global coverage and heightened awareness of hard-line anti-women politics in the Lone Star State.  It also created a new political heroine for many progressive Texans and activists around the United States.

On 25 June Davis stood for 11 hours to stop a bill that would have reduced the number of state abortion providers from 42 to 5. Such restriction was to cap longstanding efforts to curb women’s control over their own fertility, which includes state-directed anti-choice counseling and 24 hour mandatory wait times.

It initially seemed that the Republicans had won when Davis was cut off on procedural technicalities, but Democratic State Senator Leticia Van De Putte from San Antonio, who rushed back from her father’s funeral, took the floor. After she finished speaking, hundreds packing the gallery cheered, further delaying the vote. Just after midnight, the Senate’s own website stated that the bill had become law.  This claim had to be rescinded when it was publicly revealed that the Republicans had changed the time stamp in order to declare the bill passed. In fact, Davis, and her pro-choice supporters inside and outside government, had won.

Unfortunately, SB 5 and the dangers of the anti-choice renaissance survive to burden women another day. The last six months have led to 35 measures to restrict abortion procedures being passed in 17 different states, both conservative and the traditionally more socially liberal “swing states.” In Texas, Governor Perry has added SB 5 to another special session.  It is unlikely that the Democrats will be able to stall the bill a second time since the vote will likely be taken earlier in the session, making a filibuster near- impossible. Perry has also been noted for his personal attacks on Davis (Holpuch) a strategy that recalls the vitriol that regularly rains down on outspoken women and links the growing battle against pro-choice to misogyny within the public domain. However, Davis’ courage and determination (accessorized by pink sneakers) have won her many supporters.

Dubbed the “LeBron James of filibustering” on Wikipedia (a reference to American Basketball legend), Davis has become a rising star in state politics (Ramshaw).  No sooner had the filibuster succeeded that rumours spread that Davis will challenge Republican Perry.  Such a contest will inevitably evoke memories of a former Democratic governor, the charismatic Ann Richards (1991-95; 1933-2006) who was celebrated as a progressive and a feminist but was eventually defeated by Republican George W. Bush, later better known as the 43rd president of the U.S.A. (Sheeler).

The filibuster of Wendy Davis in Texas, like global phenomena such as Pussy Riot and the Idle No More movement, positions feminism against reactionary conservative politics.  Texas may soon face the prospect of a third woman governor (after Richards and Miriam A. Ferguson [1875-1961]).  If  Davis is successful, she will have been well-trained in tactics needed to challenge misogyny and the new campaign of “death by legislation” deployed by the anti-choice movement.


Eilperin, Juliet. “Antiabortion measures gain momentum in the states,Washington Post, April 11, 2013

Eilperin, Juliet. “What does Wendy Davis mean for the larger abortion debate?Washington Post, June 26, 2013

Holpuch, Amanda. “Texas governor Rick Perry attacks Wendy Davis over teenage pregnancy,The Guardian,  June 27, 2013

Levs, Josh and Michael Martinez. “Wendy Davis: From teen mom to Harvard law to famous filibuster,CNN Politics, June 27, 2013

Pieklo, Mason. “Abortion Rights Under Fire: Why Wendy Davis Matters,” Rolling Stone,  June 26, 2013

Ramshaw, Emily. “A Filibuster Creates an Overnight Celebrity,” New York Times, June 4, 2011

Sheeler, Kristina K. Horn. Women’s public discourse and the gendering of leadership culture: Ann Richards and Christine Todd Whitman negotiate the governorship, Indiana University, 2000.

Wendy Davis Campaign Website, Accessed June 28, 2013

Sandra Lovelace-Nicholas

Sandra Lovelace Nicholas (April 15, 1948-)

By Kelsey Wrightson

Sandra Lovelace-Nicholas Photo from Government of Canada

Sandra Lovelace-Nicholas Photo from Government of Canada

The life and career of Sandra Lovelace Nicholas exemplifies how a single individual can transform democratic governance. Lovelace Nicholas worked within government institutions to tackle injustice and discrimination, especially against Indigenous women and children. In the 1970s and 1980s, she challenged the gendered discrimination of the Canadian Indian Act. Subsequently, she continued her battle for justice and equality as the second Aboriginal woman appointed to the Canadian Senate.

Lovelace Nicholas has had many different careers. She studied at Fredericton’s St. Thomas University for three years and later trained in residential construction. Prior to her Senate appointment she worked as a treaty researcher, adult care program director, training coordinator and carpenter. However, she is best known for her political activism for which she received membership to the Order of Canada (1990) and a Governor General’s Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case (1992).

Lovelace Nicholas’ objections to the Indian Act were rooted in personal experiences and observations. She was born in New Brunswick’s Tobique First Nation (Maliseet) in 1948, twelve years before First Nations men and women were allowed to legally vote federally (1960). Raised by a single mother, she grew up with two sisters, surrounded by aunts and cousins. On the Tobique First Nation she experienced the pervasive poverty and prejudice associated with the Indian Act.

In 1970 she married non-First Nations American Airman Bernie Lovelace and moved to California. With the end of that marriage, she returned to the reserve only to be denied housing, education, and health care under the Indian Act: marriage between an Aboriginal woman with Indian status and a non-status man entailed automatic loss of status and rights for her and her children. She could not regain status, even if she divorced her husband or was widowed. In contrast, Aboriginal men marrying outside their community paid no such penalty. Unable to access band services or housing, she was forced to live with her young son in a tent. In 1977 she joined a group of women who non-violently occupied the Tobique band office for four months, demanding an end to discrimination.

The New Brunswickers were not alone. Many Aboriginal women’s groups and their allies opposed the Indian Act. In the early 1970s, supported by the Report of the federal Royal Commission on the Status of Women (1970), Indian Rights for Indian Women and the Native Women’s Association of Canada campaigned to change the law. They found themselves opposing both the federal government and many men in their own communities. In 1971, Jeannette Corbiere Lavell (b 1942), an Ontario Anishnabe and member of the Wikwemikonge First Nation, initiated legal action against Canada (Lavell v Attorney General of Canada 1971). She was followed by Six Nations Mohawk Yvonne Bedard (Bedard v Isaac 1971). Lavell won on appeal and Bedard’s victory depended on this precedent. However, in 1973, when Ottawa appealed the cases to the Supreme Court of Canada, discrimination against women was upheld.

Lovelace Nicholas nevertheless took her own case to the Supreme Court in  Sandra Lovelace v Canada (1977-1981). Encouraged by the women in her community, she followed earlier Indigenous precedent to take advantage of the reputation and authority of the United Nations, petitioning its Human Rights Committee in 1979. Two years later, the Committee found Canada in breach of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Despite this condemnation, the UN lacked the substantive power to change Canadian law and Lovelace Nicholas was denied remedy.

In addition to legal intervention, Lovelace Nicholas joined activists in mobilizing public campaigns to raise the consciousness and consciences of Canadians. In July 1979, she joined 50 women and children from Tobique in a 100 mile march to Ottawa. The Canadian government found it increasingly difficult to defend the status quo. In 1982 the Constitution, newly repatriated from the United Kingdom, was amended to include the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section 15, hard fought for by feminists, asserted the equality of every individual under the law (Kome). Finally, in 1985, despite the opposition of many male-dominated reserves, Bill C-31 revised the Indian Act to reduce (although not eliminate) gender discrimination.

In 2005, Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin, who was trying to improve relations with First Nations, appointed Lovelace Nicholas as a Liberal Senator for New Brunswick. She followed the Saskatchewan pioneer, Cree-Chinese Lillian Dyck by only a few months. In 2013, Lovelace Nicholas sat on the Senate Standing Committees on Aboriginal Peoples, and Agriculture and Forestry. Her speeches regularly address education, Idle No More, and gender-based violence. On 14 February 2013 she called for a national inquiry into Canada’s missing and murdered women, and reprimanded the Conservative government of Stephen Harper for leaving resolutions to violence against Indigenous women to the police:  “in light of all the problems and horrifying accounts of the deteriorating relationships between RCMP and Aboriginal women, how can their approach to dealing with these cases be effective at all?”(Lovelace-Nicholas,14 February 2013). Lovelace Nicholas was also outspoken in her criticism of Bill C-27, the First Nations’ Financial Transparency Act, first introduced in 2011. Like many Indigenous activists, she condemned the failure to consult with affected communities.

Over the course of more than thirty years, Lovelace Nicholas has simultaneously challenged the Canadian government and male-dominated Indigenous leadership. She worked within the democratic system, using its tools to bring about reform. In the second decade of the 21st century, another generation of Indigenous activists, often women, returned to the Canadian streets in the Idle No More movement. Lovelace Nicholas, like Dyck, proved sympathetic to this shift in tactics.  Both called for an alliance of elders, youth and women in a renewed quest for equality. The result suggests continuity rather than disruption in the long history of Indigenous women’s protest in Canada.




Centre for Canadian Studies, Mount Allison University, “Sandra Lovelace- Native Activist” 2001

Holmes, Joan. Bill C-31, equality or disparity? The effects of the new Indian Act on native women. Ottawa: Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women, 1987.

Jamieson, Kathleen. Indian Women and the Law in Canada: Citizens Minus. Ottawa: Advisory Council on the Status of Women, 1978.

Kome, Penney.  The Taking of Twenty-Eight: Women Challenge the Constitution. Toronto: Women’s Press, 1983.

Lawrence, Bonita. “Real” Indians and Others: Mixed-Blood Urban Native Peoples and Indigenous Nationhood. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.

Lovelace, Sandra “Questions to the Senate Thursday, February 14th 2013,” 1st Session, 41st Parliament, Volume 148, Issue 138

Lovelace, Sandra, “Questions to the Senate Monday March 25, 2013″ 1st Session, 41st Parliament, Volume 148, Issue 148,

New Federation House, Native Leaders of Canada, New Federation House, 2009

Royal Commission of Aboriginal Peoples, “Indian Act: Indian Women,” in Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, vol. 1, Looking Forward Looking Back. Ottawa: The Commission, 1996. 300-302.