Jan Schakowsky Leads the Fight for Women

The co-chair of the Caucus for Women's Issues is working on reducing maternal deaths.

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With 73 women serving in the U.S. House of Representatives and 17 serving in the U.S. Senate—the most female members ever in Congress—more attention has been drawn to important women's issues, both at home and globally. Illinois Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky, co-chair of the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues, and her female colleagues in Congress work to make sure that legislation regarding the rights of women are addressed. She recently spoke with U.S. News about the top problems women are confronting around the world and why the government should look to women as leaders and resources. [See a slide show of the women of the Senate.] Excerpts:

What issues are on the agenda for women right now?

The bipartisan caucus on women's issues set as our "must pass" agenda: reducing maternal deaths, and combating sex trafficking and violence against women and girls. And we've done lots of work on all those issues. When we talk about maternal death, we talk about that at home and around the world. We made sure in the healthcare legislation that policies that are sold [starting] in 2014 must cover maternity care, and that "gender rating"—that is, charging higher prices for women because our bodies are different—will be eliminated. In the health bill, we ended the practice of viewing domestic violence or pregnancy as a pre-existing condition.

Was the healthcare bill an overall success for women?

It has some very, very important changes that help women, no question. Particularly, the fact that women have paid up to 48 percent more for their healthcare—not just young women or women of childbearing age, but older women as well. So, ending gender rating and requiring maternity care coverage was very important.

You've spoken a lot about the recession's effect on women. Do you think Congress has taken note?

I do. I think the perception of this recession has been that it's mostly been a man's recession in terms of unemployment. We did a Mother's Day press conference with Rep. Carolyn Maloney from New York [who is chair of] the Joint Economic Committee that showed that increases in unemployment were especially steep for female heads of households and that it was really a myth that it was primarily a male recession.

Why should more domestic policies focus on women?

Aside from the fact that women are slightly more than half of the population and slightly more than half of the voters in our country, Congress needs to pay attention because all the data shows that when we attend to women, we attend to families. That goes for healthcare and education of our children, and that's really true worldwide. Also, women have faced a history of discrimination, and that's why we continue to have affirmative action programs. But issues like domestic violence are also very prevalent in the United States. More than 95 percent of the victims of domestic violence are women and we need to address it as an epidemic. In some ways we should address it as terrorism; women being terrorized in their own homes.

What are the biggest obstacles for getting Congress behind these issues?

There are two things not so much related to gender that are the problem now: time and money. Those are our only obstacles. We do see a good deal of support from our male colleagues, but all of these issues take resources, and the calendar between now and the end of the session is pretty loaded. So we're really trying to make room for these issues, and we have to convince our colleagues of how important they are to women in their district. But it's worth their while to find the money and the time to get these passed.

Is it easier to get things done with more women in Congress?

We now have a record number of women in both the House and the Senate; 73 women in the House and 17 women in the Senate. But still, if you look at even some developing countries who set quotas [requiring] 25 percent or 30 percent of women [to serve in their legislatures], we're still talking only about 17 percent of women in the House and exactly 17 percent in the Senate. Now, of course, we have a woman as the speaker of the House which is very important, and we do have women as chairs of full committees, like Louise Slaughter, chair of the very powerful Rules Committee, and Nydia Velazquez, the first Hispanic woman to chair a full committee, the Small Business Committee.