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Will 2013 Be a Groundbreaking Year for Women?

By January 11, 2013

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How are things shaping up for women in 2013? Are the headlines from the first two weeks of the new year any indication of what's to come?

Three stories that have topped the list: a new Congress chock-full of women -- more than ever before, particularly in a Senate that's now 20% female; a changing Cabinet where the notable women who have chosen to step down are being replaced by white males -- appointments President Obama is being criticized for; and a departing Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, whose ill health has been the cause of much speculation.

My former colleague Deborah White, who recently left as About.com's Guide to Liberal Politics to blog at Liberal Politics USA, asks whether more women in politics means more protections for women. She focuses specifically on VAWA (the Violence Against Women Act which failed to be authorized by the House in 2012); the Paycheck Fairness Act; House hearings on birth control and women's health; and whether bills that will benefit women will be passed this year. Her conclusion is not heartening: "[U]ntil women hold 50% of Congressional seats, and not 18.3% as in the new 113th Congress, the presence of a handful more Congresswomen does not portend more bills passed to provide protections, security, and equal opportunities for women. "

At The Broad Side, Joanne Bamberger addresses criticism of Obama's most recent Cabinet appointments to point out that throughout U.S. history, only 26 women have been members of a presidential Cabinet. She writes, "It's not unusual for cabinet-level appointees to leave the White House in a second term.  Those jobs have high burnout factors," and shares some facts about the women who've served in Cabinets past and present through an info-graphic courtesy of NerdWallet.

As for Hillary Clinton's poor health at the end of her time as U.S. Secretary of State eclipsing her accomplishments, syndicated columnist Froma Harrop praises Clinton while also condemning her for failing to "show more dedication to self-preservation." In her most recent column "Can Hillary Pace Herself?" Harrop observes:

The football helmet that State Department staffers presented Hillary Clinton upon her return to the office was cute, but only sort of. Same went for the "Clinton" football jersey bearing the number 112. That's how many countries she's visited since becoming secretary of state....

No secretary of state had gone to that many countries. In her nearly 1,500 days as America's top diplomat, Clinton traveled on 401 of them. During one famous 48-hour period, she met with Palestinian officials in Abu Dhabi, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem and, after doing an all-nighter in Morocco, a group of Arab leaders.

Of course, she got sick. Who wouldn't?...

What's not cute about all this is the underlying -- shall we say? -- irresponsibility of so overstuffing the agenda. This blows against Clinton's reputation as the ultimate Responsible One. It's thus disturbing that many of her admirers portrayed the resulting sickness as a tribute to her work ethic.

About that work ethic...my biggest issue with Harrop's piece is that she conveniently ignores the fact that gender bias remains an inherent part of the political system.

A female political figure, whether elected or appointed, has to struggle against criticism of whether she's fit for the task because she may possibly be distracted/compromised because she's a mother of children still at home, a wife with a husband whose job is demanding, or a 'crazy woman' whose menstrual cycle makes her unfit during her time of the month.

Every successful woman I know has a work ethic that far outstrips the majority of her male colleagues. She has to...otherwise she wouldn't succeed because the deck is stacked against her.

This is the same work ethic that put more women in the House and Senate and got them appointed to Obama's first-term cabinet in record numbers. Criticizing Clinton's work ethic -- and saying it may make her unfit for a presidential run in 2016 -- is a form of gender bias. Would Harrop feel this way about a man?

We're still within the early weeks of 2013, still feeling our way forward in a year that looks like it may bring greater opportunities than ever before. Here's hoping that they pan out.

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