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Sisters Doing It for Themselves: Jewish Women on Rise in Congress

October 20, 2006
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Why are there so many women in the congressional Jewish caucus? Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) cuts to the chase. It’s the Jewish-mother factor, she says: They get things done.

“Is it surprising that a Jewish mother would be in the U.S. Congress?” Schakowsky asks with a laugh. “We know how to do things. We state our minds. Often we come from educated and successful backgrounds.”

Jewish women outpace their non-Jewish counterparts in the Congress, both in terms of the relative Jewish population in the United States — about 2 percent — and in terms of the male-to-female ratio in Congress.

Women hold 67 of the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, or about 15 percent. Of the 26-member Jewish contingent, seven are women, more than 25 percent.

They are Schakowsky; Susan Davis (D-Calif.); Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.); Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.); Jane Harman (D-Calif.); Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.); and Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.).

There are two Jewish women in the Senate: Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), among 14 women and 11 Jews.

A number of the female lawmakers have moved up the leadership ranks of the Democratic Party: Lowey served a term as chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee; Harman is the ranking member of the Intelligence Committee; and Schakowsky serves on the House Democratic Leadership team as chief deputy whip.

Three more Jewish women are running in these midterm elections: Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat, is a shoo-in in an open seat in southern Arizona; and Ellen Simon, a Democrat, is running a competitive race in central Arizona against incumbent Rep. Rick Renzi, a Republican. In northern Virginia, Democrat Judy Feder has an outside chance against incumbent Frank Wolf.

The increased visibility of women is a recent phenomenon. The number of women in the House doubled in the 1990s and increased in the Senate in the past decade.

“Inside that increase of women in general, there’s been a strong representation of women from groups of the population that are minority groups,” says Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. Some 25 percent of the women in Congress are women of color, she says.

As political office has become more accessible, Mandel contends that minority women, including Jewish women, “have taken advantage of the opportunity, have been inspired — almost doubly inspired — to be part of that progressive change.”

Nowhere is this trend more apparent than in the Democratic Party.

“Without a doubt we are certainly the more welcoming of the two parties to women’s rights issues” and “that includes a woman’s right to choose,” says David Goldenberg, deputy executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

He attributes the slew of Jewish Democratic women in Congress to the fact that the “Jewish community really has sought to empower women.” Also, he says, mainstream Jews are more progressive than the rest of America.

Republican Jewish women have won leadership roles as well. Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, cites Linda Lingle, governor of Hawaii, and Florence Shapiro, a state senator in Texas, as rising stars within his party.

Brooks acknowledges that fewer Jewish women have ascended the ranks of the Republican leadership, but says that’s because the goal is “to get more Jewish Republicans, period.”

“It’s not a gender thing,” he says. “We’re looking for the best people, men and women.”

That’s what voters look for, too, says Matt Dorf, managing partner of Rabinowitz/Dorf Communications and a Democratic Party consultant.

“Race after race, it’s the views that matter, not the Jews,” he said. “People are voting for good candidates with smart ideas.”

Still, he says, that doesn’t stop U.S. Jews from looking to their representatives with pride.

“It’s always been a badge of pride how many Jewish members of Congress there are,” Dorf says. “The Jews in America look to public figures for proof of their community’s acceptance in mainstream America.”

Berkley has been keenly aware of this throughout her political career. When she first ran for office in 1982, she says, some elected officials in Nevada just happened to be Jewish. She wanted to reverse that equation.

“When I ran, I wanted to run as a Jewish woman who happened to be a public servant,” she says. “My Jewish background is the essence of who I am. It’s important for people to know and appreciate that.”

It’s also what propelled her into public service. Berkley says her mother, a homemaker, was active in her synagogue sisterhood and B’nai B’rith.

The people skills her mother used in those organizations are the same skills Berkley uses to campaign. She also took from her mother a commitment to social justice and equality.

“I took the values I got from my mother, and I’m able to translate that into legislative action,” she says.

The Jewish value of “tikkun olam,” or repairing the world, is a natural fit for Jewish women and the Democratic Party, Schakowsky says.

“A sense of justice is very much part of our Jewish upbringing,” she says.

She describes her Jewish female colleagues as passionate and committed to the issues.

“Self-confidence certainly characterizes all of us,” she says. “So it’s not surprising that we’d seek leadership positions.”

They also have similar agendas when it comes to supporting Israel, children and the elderly, she says.

Schakowsky attributes the recent success of women candidates, and not just Jewish ones, to the fact that “voters think women are more honest and less likely to be swayed by special interest groups.”

Wasserman Schultz agrees. The average voter views women as being in politics “for the right reasons,” she says, and sees them as “agents of change.”

When public frustration over government corruption and scandals surface, women tend to do well in elections, Wasserman Schultz says. She expects this November will be no different.

Female Jewish candidates tend to help each other out. Wasserman Schultz recently flew to Arizona to help Giffords’ campaign. Berkley held a fund-raiser for Giffords at her home in Washington.

Giffords, 36, believes sending more Jewish women to Congress will push forward issues such as stem-cell research and ensure that women continue to have the right to abortion. Jewish women will also push education to the forefront, she says, and will advocate for greater U.S. involvement in Israeli-Arab peacemaking.

“This administration has not taken an active role in the peace process as it should,” Giffords says, but contends that Jewish women could change that.

“In my family, if you want to get something done you take it to the Jewish women relatives,” she says. “Jewish women, by and large, know how to get things done.”

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