Representative Babette Josephs on Women in Politics

From her early days as Executive Director for Pennsylvania’s NARAL, to promoting energy conservation, to tireless advocacy for civil rights, public schools, and a more open and transparent government, State Representative Babette Josephs has serious progressive street cred. As Chair of the State Government Committee and a senior Democrat in the House, she’s had a lot of influence on issues near and dear to Philadelphians, particularly civil liberties issues; this past year, the State Government committee kept an amendment to ban gay marriage in the Pennsylvania constitution from ever reaching the floor. She is the inspiration for many young women considering a future in politics.

Josephs learned advocacy from years as a community activist, working with neighbors to reform party politics, and to insist on accountable representatives. “It was the early ’70s. And we were the Committee to Reform the Eighth Ward. It was a great acronym- we were ‘the CREW’. I ran for committee,” recalls Josephs.

In the days when Roe v. Wade was working its way to the Supreme Court, Josephs became involved with the Women’s Political Caucus and NARAL (now NARAL Pro-Choice America). There was an effort at that time to ban abortion quickly before the legal landscape changed. Martin Mullen, a Representative from West Philadelphia, introduced House Bill 800, a bill to ban all abortions in the state. “He was the Stupak of Pennsylvania, back then,” says Josephs. The bill was passed in both chambers and went to Governor Shapp to be signed into law.

Josephs and other Pennsylvania feminists went into high gear, organizing a campaign to collect authorizations for telegrams, back in the days without computers or email. “We were on the street corners, we contacted every organization we could think of,” she remembers. “We sent Shapp telegrams saying ‘Veto HB 800′- he had big piles of telegrams on his desk. And we waited.”

Shapp waited too. When he vetoed the legislation, it was beautiful timing. The only day the House could convene to override the veto was during the first day of a two-day bear hunting season. Mullen couldn’t get fellow Republicans to stay in Harrisburg; they wanted to go hunting. He lost his majority. “And that’s exactly what Shapp had in mind,” says Josephs. The bill never became law, “ I’ve always been grateful to the bears of Pennsylvania who sacrificed themselves for the women.”

The fight for reproductive rights for women is ongoing, and Josephs is a tireless champion. “I really love this issue although the burnout factor is something I had to deal with,” says Josephs, “When I left NARAL I went into energy conservation; it was so much easier. Nobody was calling me on the phone and threatening my life, which was kind of nice. But reproductive rights is the issue that keeps us honest. It’s the issue that keeps us energized, and it’s the issue that reminds us what they really think of us out there.”

When Josephs arrived in Harrisburg, she was one of three women in the state House. “It was discouraging,” she recalls, “There were more women who were Republican. But you know, Pennsylvania is very partisan. It’s worse now, but it was bad then. We didn’t interact much with the Republicans, men or women.”

Currently in Harrisburg, as in legislatures across the country and in Washington, DC, partisanship has a death-grip. Despite this, at the end of September, the State House passed a bill that would enact a severance tax on gas and oil companies drilling natural gas in the Marcellus Shale. This went part of the way to fulfilling a bi-partisan promise made during last summer’s budget negotiations by legislators to deliver a natural gas tax before the mid-term break. Representative Josephs describes the give and take that led up to the final vote, bringing the floor to life:

“Republican Representative Kate Harper introduced a six word amendment to change the way the revenues were distributed, which was a point of contention,” she explains. This change made the difference to many of her Republican colleagues, much to House Republican leadership’s chagrin, “When they saw it was going to pass, all of a sudden they wanted a caucus, whereas before they’d been standing up and saying, we’ve been talking about this forever, can’t we move on,” recounts Josephs. Then she smiles, recalling Democratic leadership’s reply, “’Mr. Minority Caucus Chairman, a lot of your caucus have been standing up and saying they want to move this process along. Everyone knows what’s in the amendment. It’s only six words long.’ And so we wouldn’t let them go to caucus, where they would have twisted arms”.

And thus a bi-partisan severance tax bill was sent to the Republican-led Senate. However, the Senate recessed without taking action. Whether or not to tax and regulate the state’s gas industry looms large in the Governor’s race, and Pennsylvania has always been starkly divided along party lines.

“In Congress, this kind of partisanship is new. I would go to conferences for state legislatures and be so jealous of people getting along in other states. And they would be so surprised when we would describe how partisan the Pennsylvania legislature was, because they worked across party lines. They had bi-partisan women’s caucuses, for instance,” says Josephs, “There were women, and non-white people, and non-Christian people in both parties. Not in Pennsylvania.”

Women stay out of politics for many reasons, including deciding how they want to juggle career and family demands, and in general being more conditioned for a support role in society. Traditionally, women have not been encouraged to think about politics as a career. Slowly, this is changing.

But women are also wary of how female candidates are treated by their male opponents, notes Josephs. Sexual harassment is nothing new as a tactic to keep women out of jobs, so it’s not surprising that it should be an issue on the campaign trail. “Women sometimes get this really vile reaction from their male opponents, that males don’t get from their male or female opponents, and it echoes among women as a form of sexual harassment. And when they see that women candidates are treated in this disrespectful and disgraceful way, it doesn’t encourage them to get into politics,” says Josephs.

“When I first started, there were more women than there are now in both houses, in both parties. If you look at Pennsylvania, you’ll see we’re still ranked near the bottom in terms of women in the legislature. We haven’t moved up. Although the full-time legislatures are all like that, because those are good jobs. It’s the part-time ones that don’t pay well, or some of them don’t pay at all, that have lots of women in them,”notes Josephs, “But there are more women everywhere in politics. And once you’re there, colleagues tend to treat you with respect because they may need your vote some day.”

In the early days of the feminist movement, many Republican women were also pro-choice. But that has changed. Josephs says the consistently anti-feminist perspective of the Republican Party has got to be difficult for Republican women to defend.

“Now we have a new brand of conservative woman, Sarah Palin look-alikes,” says Josephs, “They’re running on a platform that says, basically, women have no role to play in public life. If you’re not constantly supervised by men, you can’t do it right, whatever it is: pregnancy, child-rearing, jobs. So how can you be a woman in public life and advocate for a policy which says you shouldn’t be there in the first place? It’s hard for them to make their case. And I think that’s why Sarah Palin is a media star right now, and not a candidate.”

In the past two decades, GOP “pro-life” candidates have become the rule, as the Republican party has become more socially conservative. A handful of Tea Party “mama grizzlies” go even farther, taking what used to be an extremist anti-choice view of abortion, opposing exceptions even in cases of rape or incest. Tea Party candidate Sharron Angle, running against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada, opposes abortion across the board, even when the mother’s health is at risk because, she says, that’s part of God’s plan.

“I get these alerts from a group called Columbia Christians for Life,” says Josephs, “They are trying to do fetal personhood bills all over the country. Now they hate everybody, but mostly they hate the women in the Republican Party. When they talk about the Republicans, they are very vitriolic about the men who won’t vote with them, and particularly the Catholic men. But they save their real fire and hate for the women. And they hate them for being in public office. You are not supposed to be in public office. Unless, I don’t know, your husband dies. And even then you’re not supposed to be in politics, you’re supposed to have some really difficult low-paying job so you can keep your children out of the poor house. But you’re not supposed to be powerful, you’re not supposed to be a Governor. You’re not supposed to be running around the country raising huge sums of money and influencing elections. Women aren’t supposed to do that.”

“For Republican women in public office, in particularly if they’re fundamentalists, what does it do to your psyche to say I’m going to be making decisions that effect my state, or the entire country, or the whole world, but I’m not going to let someone who looks just like me make a decision about her private life?” asks Josepsh. “I don’t think you can sustain that and be healthy.”

“I think in their heart of hearts Republican women know they’re not being supported by their party. Or, if they are, it’s only in these sort of ‘women-appropriate’ roles- like they can be on the Burough council of some small town. And of course a lot of women get caught there. And that’s another reason women don’t run for higher office,” says Josephs, “Women do, particularly in Pennsylvania, get caught. We have so much local government, and they get there and there’s no prestige, there’s no status, there’s nothing but work. And they do it, because women are conditioned to work under those kinds of circumstances. Women are told that’s what we’re supposed to do. The men won’t put up with it. But women see there’s a need and they throw themselves into it. And so they don’t get to the General Assembly, and they don’t get to DC.”

The two-year election cycle has made Josephs a veteran campaigner. Despite serious challenges along the way, Josephs has survived and thrived as her District’s representative, with strong majorities of the vote. She freely shares her advice and support with younger candidates. Talking about the broad differences between men and women in terms of governing styles, Josephs comments that more often, women are other-directed and tend to have a more long-range mentality. “Of course, when you’re running every two years it gets harder to think that way,” she notes, “It makes you more responsive, but it also makes you think in terms of shorter-range goals. There’s always two sides to the coin.” Despite short election cycles, Josephs loves the House and is glad to serve there. She says, “I feel we are the House of the people.”

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