Joe Biden and the Closet Male Feminists in Government


In 2012, women gained a record number of Senate seats. While much progress still needs to be made to address the gender imbalance in Congress, we’re definitely moving in the right direction. But are women the only ones who can bring a feminist agenda to Washington?

Sadly, publicly labeling oneself a feminist still seems to be a dangerous game for male lawmakers, but those on this list of secret male feminists have been working behind the scenes, some of them for years, to enact legislation that supports women and equity.

5. (Honorable Mention) Ohio State Senate President Tom Niehaus.

Senator Niehaus (R-New Richmond) technically gets an honorable mention since he’s not a member of the U.S. Senate, but he gets major kudos for his decision last week not to bring two terrible bills to the Ohio Senate floor. The first, dubbed the “Heartbeat Bill” passed the House in 2011 and would have prohibited abortion once a fetal heartbeat was detected. The second, House Bill 298, would have prevented Ohio Planned Parenthood clinics from receiving federal funding. Niehaus cited concerns about the constitutionality of the Heartbeat Bill and said that Planned Parenthood offered much needed services to Ohioans. 

4. Representative Steve Cohen (D-Tenn).

Serving Tennessee’s 9th Congressional District, located in the Memphis area, Cohen has gained notoriety as a progressive and civil rights advocate since his tenure began in 2007. Though he made waves with his 2011 remark comparing Republican opposition to Obamacare to Nazi propaganda, he’s also created a splash with his excellent track record on women’s reproductive rights. Congressman Cohen’s voting record earned him a score of 100% from the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the only 100% in the Tennessee delegation. 

3. Representative Barney Frank (D-Mass) .

Representing the Fourth Congressional District of Massachusetts, Barney Frank has one of the most impressive pro-choice voting records in Congress. Though Frank is probably better known for his fiscal reform efforts (see Dodd-Frank), or maybe even his personal escapades, in 2009, Frank had a 100% rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America for his record on women’s reproductive health issues.

His commitment to women’s health is apparent in his sponsorship of a series of legislative efforts. In 1993, Frank co-sponsored the Freedom of Choice Act. In 2006 he co-sponsored the Compassionate Assistance for Rape Emergencies Act, and in 2007, co-sponsored the Prevention First Act.

2. Senator Arlen Specter (D-Pa).

Former Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter passed away this past October at the age of 82 and was probably best known for his 2009 party switch (from Republican to Democrat) that cost him the Senate seat he’d held for nearly thirty years. Specter makes the list of secret feminists for his involvement in the passage of 2009’s Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which loosened time limitations for filing pay discrimination lawsuits.

The Lilly Ledbetter Act was the first bill signed into law by President Obama, but it saw a tough Senate battle before landing on his desk. Having been defeated by Senate Republicans in 2008, the Senate finally passed the bill in January of 2009, with all 56 Democrats voting in favor of the bill, joined by five Republicans. They included Specter (who was a Republican at the time) plus all four women in the GOP caucus.     

 1. Vice President Joe Biden (D-Del).

Before he was hugging it out with Leslie Knope and washing Trans Ams in the White House driveway, Joe Biden was blazing the trail for women’s rights with his legislative contributions. Back in 1994, then-Senator Biden drafted the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which passed with bi-partisan support. Under VAWA, the National Domestic Violence Hotline was established, law enforcement officials were provided with better training on how to help domestic violence victims, and stalking became a felony offense—and these are just a few of the victories achieved by the legislation.

VAWA is currently up for re-authorization by Congress, but progress has been stymied by Republican lawmakers who do not want to see VAWA’s protections extended to other groups like the LGBTQ community and undocumented immigrants. To learn more about how you can urge your Representatives to pass VAWA 2012, go here.

While the recent representative gains for women in politics is a major victory, these congressmen also deserve a tip of the hat for their efforts to make the world a better, more equitable place for women. Because men can be feminists, too!