Last week, Senate Republicans again filibustered S1, a landmark voting rights bill passed by the House months ago. But they didn’t do it alone. In their crusade against democracy, U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema is with them in the trenches, and everyday Americans — including women, people of color, and the Arizonans who elected her — are on the other losing side.
For years now, the filibuster has been used and abused by a minority in the Senate to block legislation most Americans support from even being voted on. Without a supermajority to end these filibusters, the Senate floor has become a place where the progressive agenda—and women’s issues specifically—goes to die.
That isn’t an accident. By its very nature, the filibuster is anti-democratic, allowing the whining of a few to override the wants of the many. It started out as a tool to uphold slavery in the antebellum South, giving senators from those states the ability to block abolition. Ever since, it’s been used to scuttle anti-lynching laws, sustain segregated schools, and stymie voting rights. That makes the filibuster as racist as the Confederacy or the Klu Klux Klan.
But make no mistake. The filibuster is sexist, too. While it was originally created to preserve the power of white men, it’s also helped preserve the power of white men. At almost every turn, it’s been used against women — even when it’s used by women. And the harm it has done to us, women of color in particular, is clear.
It has been used to block equal pay and access to birth control. It’s why we’ve never codified Roe v. Wade, and why we still lack paid family leave. It’s why we don’t have gun control to keep our kids safe at school or better labor laws to keep ourselves safe at work. It’s the reason a $15 minimum wage — which would disproportionately benefit women workers, especially women of color — is likely dead on arrival, if it ever makes it to the Senate at all, after being cut from the Covid relief package earlier this year.
The good news, though, is that Sinema can change things. All she and Senate Democrats need to do is eliminate the filibuster.
If they do, a better future is in store. It won’t be perfect. After all, there’s no shortage of disagreement in the Senate, even on just one side of the aisle. But progress will finally be a possibility instead of a pipe dream. Real paycheck fairness. Universal child care. A living wage. Reproductive freedom. Eliminating the filibuster is our gateway to enacting the agenda women want and need.
If they don’t, then President Biden can wave goodbye to any shot he has at governing effectively. Despite his attempts to reach across the aisle, not one Republican senator voted for his Covid relief package. Now, they’re lining up to oppose the infrastructure bill we desperately need. As much as Sinema suggests otherwise, supermajorities aren’t encouraging bipartisanship — especially not in a body so committed to obstructionism.
And Democrats can wave goodbye to winning the midterms in 2022. I speak for myself and the ten million women who’ve taken to the streets with Women’s March when I say that voters don’t want more excuses. We want results. We elected Democrats to the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives because we’re desperate for the big, bold change they promised while campaigning. If they fail to eliminate the filibuster, they’ll fail to deliver — and fail to engage the voters they need to keep on winning. This isn’t because our communities and movements will have given up on electoral politics. It’s because each day the filibuster stays put, we’re being further disenfranchised from it.
S1, or the For the People Act, is the perfect example. Its provisions would strengthen the right to vote in America, with outsized impacts on communities of color that are most at risk in our current system. The downstream effects of the bill would be tremendous: automatic registration would enfranchise 50 million new voters, optional mail-in voting would make Election Day easier, and public financing would help oust big money from politics. If we want to put more women in office, put more pro-choice judges on the bench, and put an end to the obscene abortion restrictions that have been coming out of state legislatures lately, then S1 is foundational.
But with the filibuster, S1 has no chance of passing. It’s simple: every day Sinema drags her feet on eliminating the filibuster — and every day that fellow Democrats and Biden don’t pressure her to change course — is a day our elected representatives are choosing decorum over democracy. Enough is enough. Now is the time to purge the institution of one of its most racist, sexist relics (no, I’m not talking about Mitch McConnell) and abolish the filibuster for good.
Rachel O’Leary Carmona is executive director of Women’s March.