As Democrats take hold of the U.S. House of Representatives once again, a perennial “women's issue” is back at the forefront: healthcare.
Last week, Democrats kicked off their defense of the Affordable Care Act by authorizing House attorneys to oppose a challenge to the law of the land by Republican attorneys general. A Texas judge in mid-December handed the GOP lawyers a gift by declaring the ACA unconstitutional. He later issued a stay, allowing the law to stand while the case makes its way through the appeals process.
It's no surprise that Democrats—and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)—want to protect the ACA and access to healthcare. After all, she brought together the votes to pass the legislation in 2010. She said her chamber also will work to “lower healthcare costs by reducing the cost of prescription drugs and preserving the pre-existing condition benefit.”
Although healthcare is one of about six political baskets known as “women's issues,” it's time for Pelosi and the record number of women—126—sworn into office, many who campaigned on access and other “women's issues” this election cycle, to eliminate that label. Healthcare is one of those issues that affects everyone, and Pelosi said Democrats are reclaiming the House “for the people.”
Historically healthcare has been considered a women's issue only because childbirth and family planning require more services than the average healthy man demands in his lifetime. On top of that, Labor Department data show that women make 80% of household healthcare decisions.
One of the ACA's provisions entails offering free preventive care for everyone, not just women. And in fact, after the ACA was implemented, rates of prostate, lung and colorectal cancer screening grew, especially in states that expanded Medicaid.
And don't all members of society benefit from access to healthcare or public health initiatives?
We're already seeing this new wave of congresswomen change our first branch of government. The Capitol reportedly is adding changing tables in the members-only bathrooms and considering flexible work hours to accommodate those new members with young families.
During the elections, many female candidates ran not by demanding their right to be heard but by establishing themselves as formidable rivals regardless of their gender. Their ads touted their experience in combat, their command of high-powered executive offices, and for one, her record in mixed martial arts competitions.
One of the newcomers is Lauren Underwood, who's a nurse. She represents Illinois' 14th Congressional District and is the youngest black woman to serve in Congress. She said she'll concentrate on paid family leave and affordable child care. The former item has already received the support of President Donald Trump, who last year included funding for a six-week paid family leave in his budget. Underwood told the Daily Herald that she believes female lawmakers will work in a bipartisan way because of what she called the “failure of male congressional leadership.”
“Women have been mobilized in a very specific, concrete way to engage in our country this election,” she said.
And they have a good chance at making a difference. Studies show female legislators are twice as likely to sponsor bills that pass as their male counterparts and, yes, those bills tend to address “women's issues.”
Georgetown University professor Michele Swers a few years ago compared male and female legislators who served in Congress in the mid-1990s. She found that liberal female legislators co-sponsored an average of 10.6 bills related to women's health—an average of 5.3 more than their liberal male colleagues.
One thing that does worry me—and is supported by some studies—is that having more women in Congress doesn't necessarily lead to more bipartisanship. Research out of Boston University that examined 20 years of congressional data up to 2008 found women are not more inherently willing to compromise.
Rebecca Sive, who's written books on women in politics, is hopeful the women in this Congress will succeed. “A new day has dawned for so-called women's issues. Every issue is a women's issue, and the U.S. Congress is about to prove that,” she said.