Mon, Nov 14 – by Ruth Graham.
Last Saturday, I left home at 7:30 in the morning to spend the day contemplating the future of women’s issues in my state, the nation, and the world. Luckily there was coffee. The occasion was the New Hampshire Women’s Caucus, a daylong conference on women’s issues and policy priorities. Since New Hampshire hosts the country’s first presidential primary, it receives tons of national media attention for its electoral politics. The caucus was a chance to inject women’s issues into that conversation. It was also a chance to contemplate topics including affordable childcare, workplace equality, and why compromise can be so totally annoying.
The caucus took place in New London, NH, on the campus of Colby-Sawyer College, which organized the event. (Disclosure: My husband teaches at the college, and a close friend served on the caucus steering committee.) The day began with a series of panel discussions on women and workplace equality, health care, and global issues.
Panelist Carol Folt, the provost of Dartmouth College, spoke about the importance of affordable childcare to advancing women’s careers. “I wouldn’t be here” as a provost and former professor with a Ph.D in ecology, she said, if it weren’t for the childcare Dartmouth offers. Women who aren’t lucky enough to have employer-subsidized care wind up socked by extra worry and costs as they try to maneuver through the most intense periods of their careers. This is particularly true for academics, who often spend the period from their late 20s to mid-30s finishing grad school and then working long hours to secure tenure. And as in so many other areas, low-income and single mothers suffer the most. In New Hampshire, Folt said, the average cost of child care eats up 37% of the typical single mother’s income.
Other panelists — both academics and activists — spoke about pay equality, Social Security (which women rely on more than men), domestic violence, reproductive rights, and other topics of interest to progressive women. Then it was time for the caucus itself.
In a traditional electoral caucus, like the one that gets so much attention in Iowa every four years, participants publicly ally themselves with individual candidates to choose delegates and, ultimately, presidential candidates. But the caucus format can also be used by groups to decide on a slate of issues or priorities. The goal of this one was to determine a focused platform of issues summing up “What Women Want Now” — at least as determined by one group of academics, progressive activists and college students.
Attendees were seated at round tables, and we began by discussing the issues we had heard about that morning within those small groups. We decided on the three issues we thought were most pressing, and presented those to the room.
Next came the fun part: Voting with our feet. Organizers had placed signs around the room representing the nine topics we had heard about that morning. They instructed us to go stand by the sign that we thought should was the most crucial issue facing women in 2011. I marched over to the childcare sign to meet the other women who chose the same issue. We smiled at each other and congratulated ourselves on being so correct in our priorities. (Privately, I rolled my eyes at the women across the room who made passing a decades-old UN resolution their top priority NOT THAT THERE’S ANYTHING WRONG WITH THAT.) Next to us, the women who had chosen workplace equality as their top issue starting cajoling us to join forces since our issues are so intertwined. Absurdly, I found myself resenting that in order to merge — which was a totally logical move — my side had to walk 10 feet while the other group stayed put. That’s how a caucus works: solidarity, then annoyance, then compromise, then consensus.
As the day progressed, we heard from many more speakers, including Terie Norelli, an incredibly inspiring state legislator (bet you’ve never heard that phrase before) and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sheryl WuDunn, who spoke about women as economic catalysts worldwide. I finished the day fired up, provoked, and exhausted. Luckily my husband was at home cooking dinner for me. Not to pooh-pooh health care and economic empowerment, but is it too late to add “getting someone to make dinner for you” to the caucus platform?