Saturday, August 1, 2009

Will the U.S. ever have its own Corazon Aquino?

Corazon Aquino, the former president of the Philippines, died today from colon cancer. Aquino may be one of the most well-known female political leaders in the last half century. She came to power after her husband was assassinated, through a peaceful uprising in 1986 -- which earned her a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. She served as president until 1992, unable to run again because of term limits. She has been active in politics ever since, and has rightfully been honored on multiple occasions.

In reading about her death, this statement, made by her oldest grandson, struck me: "Even in death she was able to unite our people."

How many current or recent leaders of our country would receive such praise today, should they die? Is there even one woman in this country for whom such sentiment would be expressed? What does that say about us as a country, and about our leaders? Tragic events can unite our country (Sept. 11), but could any one person? Are we too divided for a Corazon Aquino of our own?

Can we even elect a female president? I'd like to think it could happen sometime in my life, but I don't know who it would be. What I do know is that whoever even decides to run will be in for a rough time in today's political climate. We witnessed what Hillary Clinton went through in the primaries, what Sarah Palin went through in the election, and now what Sonia Sotomayor is going through in her confirmation process for the Supreme Court.

It's not like it's really letting up for any of these women. Just the other day, Dana Milbank and Chris Cillizza suggested Hillary Clinton would have drank "Mad Bitch" beer if she'd been at the "beer summit" at the White House; a Fox News poll showed that 32 percent of Americans think Palin should be a homemaker (good article on Salon about that poll); Sotomayor has been accused of palling around with terrorists by the Swift Boat people; and to throw another female political leader into the mix, Politico reports that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (the first woman to hold the job), who they call "one of the most despised political figures in the country," "doesn't care" if people don't like her. Maureen Dowd wrote the other day about how Clinton and Palin have essentially switched roles. (As if they were the same in the first place.)

By my account, that all pretty much sums up the state of women in politics in our country right now. Sad, hateful and divided. Of course there are a number of women in politics who don't elicit these kinds of responses, but these are the most prominent women at the moment. And when the others do get more attention and work toward higher office, I don't doubt it will look a lot like it does right now for Clinton, Palin, Sotomayor and Pelosi.

Look at the numbers in our federal government right now: Out of 435 members of the House, 75 are women. Out of 100 senators, 17 are women (that includes Kay Bailey Hutchinson, who is going to step down to run for governor of Texas). Out of 535 members of Congress, 92 are women. In the history of our country, 260 women have served in Congress -- and that includes the 92 currently serving. Of those 260 women, only 39 have not been white. Across the country, women serve as governors in six states (there were nine female governors until Palin, Kathleen Sebelius and Janet Napolitano recently stepped down; the latter two are now members of Obama's cabinet). In the history of our country, we have had 31 female governors.

As if that weren't depressing enough, now take a look at the lists of women who have been heads of government or heads of state.

We have a long way to go. In the meantime, a toast to Corazon Aquino and to the Filipinos mourning her loss -- who, by the way, are currently led by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, their second female president.

Here's the first part of the famous speech Aquino gave before the U.S. Congress in 1986, which Tip O'Neill, then the Speaker of the House, called
"the finest speech I've ever heard in my 34 years in Congress.":

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