With the childcare crisis front and center, the Democratic Women’s Caucus could become a force on Capitol Hill
As the 117th Congress kicked off this year, the body’s Democratic women saw an opportunity. With a Democratic administration, a record number of female officeholders, and national attention on the crises facing working women during the pandemic, the congresswomen didn’t want to squander it.
Just a few months ago, the Democratic Women’s Caucus kicked into high gear. The caucus—never as active or politically significant as counterparts like the Congressional Black Caucus or the Hispanic Caucus—pooled funding from its 89 members’ budgets and hired its first-ever staff. Gabrielle Gould, most recently a staffer for Rep. William Keating, is the caucus’s new executive director; Michelle Moreno-Silva, formerly a staffer in Sen. Chuck Schumer’s office, joined as communications director.
While two congressional hires may not be the biggest news on Capitol Hill, they signal the caucus’s aspirations—namely, to become an influential force in Congress.
“We have an ambitious agenda,” says Rep. Veronica Escobar, a caucus vice chair who represents El Paso in Congress. “If we wanted to have consistent, cohesive messaging—and be as productive as we want to be—we needed staff.”
Adds cochair Rep. Jackie Speier of California: “We’re poised to really deliver in ways we haven’t been before.”
A top priority
While a new administration helped the Democratic Women’s Caucus ramp up, the caucus had made it through plenty of Washington turnovers without making major changes in the past. This time around, a key priority served as a final motivator: childcare.
With millions of women—and especially working mothers—forced out of the workforce during the pandemic, schools closed, and childcare providers shutting their doors, creating government support for affordable, accessible childcare became a key issue for Democrats across Congress and the new administration. Democratic women in Congress realized they needed an organization to advocate for their “No. 1 issue” at such a critical moment.
“We’re screaming right now when it comes to childcare,” says Michigan Rep. Brenda Lawrence, a caucus cochair.
The group—which is chaired by Lawrence, Speier, and Florida Rep. Lois Frankel alongside vice chairs Escobar and Texas Rep. Sylvia Garcia—has rallied behind a commitment to invest $700 billion over 10 years in accessible and affordable childcare and in the struggling and fragmented industry that provides that care. (Democrats’ signature achievement on childcare so far is the expanded child tax credit, which is temporarily sending parents $300 checks.)
But while the urgency of the pandemic’s childcare crisis was a strong factor motivating the caucus to rally its membership, there are other priorities as well. The group sent President Joe Biden a letter outlining its asks, which range from conducting an executive branch pay audit to establishing a National Women’s History Museum.
And now that it’s organized, the caucus is prepared to fight on other issues too. “Infrastructure, climate, wages, health care. We’ve got a huge battle on our hands ahead on reproductive rights,” says Escobar. “We have a lot of work ahead of us on many fronts.”
The Democratic Women’s Caucus isn’t the only women’s group in Congress. The legislative branch has a bipartisan Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues. But given the partisan nature of so many issues critical to women, from reproductive rights to regulation of business practices on pay and gender equity, that group hasn’t been particularly active in recent years. (In earlier decades, the cross-party organization did much more.) “I used to go to the bipartisan women’s caucus meetings, maybe two years ago, and there were like three members that would show up,” says Speier.
Now, Democrats are driving engagement toward their own caucus rather than the bipartisan organization—a change the group’s leaders say began when record numbers of Democratic women elected to Congress in 2018 began looking to connect with one another. Now that the caucus has full-time staff, it’s ramping up even further. “It’s been a dramatic increase in our activity and engagement,” says Speier. “For the first time, we are really asserting our power in ways we haven’t historically.”
The professionalizing, as the chairs call their revamp of the caucus, goes beyond hiring. The caucus chairs are slowly meeting with each cabinet secretary and deputizing members to bring up core issues—especially childcare—via their committee assignments and other work.
“Within the Democratic caucus,” says Speier, “we’re flexing our muscle and underscoring that we’re tired of being left behind as women.”
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