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Women and Politics
June 10, 1999

The first election season of the next century may well be remembered for the presence of two prominent women running for high office: Elizabeth Dole, who will be a Republican candidate for President, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who last week all but announced her candidacy for the U.S. Senate. Whether these two actually win their races is ultimately less significant than what their campaigns represent -- namely, the continuing ascendancy of women in the upper levels of American politics.

What a difference a century makes. In "Why Women Do Not Wish The Suffrage," published in The Atlantic for September, 1903, Lyman Abbott took it upon himself to interpret women's "unspoken thought and feeling" about their own political involvement -- and concluded, predictably, that women's place is in the home, with politics being an inherently "masculine encounter." "This is the negative reason why woman does not wish the ballot," he writes:

She does not wish to engage in that conflict of will which is the essence of politics; she does not wish to assume the responsibility for protecting person and property which is the essence of government. The affirmative reason is that she has other, and in some sense, more important work to do. It is more important because it is the work for the protection of which governments are organized among men. Woman does not wish to turn aside from this higher work, which is itself the end of life, to devote herself to government, which exists only that this higher work may be done.... Can she not do both? No!... She has made her choice and made it wisely.... The great body of American women are true to themselves, to the nature God has given them, and to the service He has allotted to them, -- the direct ministry to life, -- and will neither be forced nor enticed from it by their restless, well-meaning, but mistaken sisters.
A little more than a decade later, with the women's suffrage movement heating up (women finally got the vote in 1920), Samuel McChord Crothers took a decidedly different stance from Abbott, in "Meditations on Votes for Women" (July 1914). "The home-keeping woman's business may make great demands upon her, but the demands are not greater or more insistent that those which come in other businesses in which public-spirited citizens are engaged. House-keeping is not an absolutely continuous performance, and neither is voting." Crothers even took a stab at explaining the psychology of men's vehement resistance to women's involvement in politics.
Persons who love to discuss the different ways in which civilization is about to be ruined, and who evoke the various perils that threaten, are often embarrassed by the difficulty of visualizing the dangers that impend. The Yellow Peril, the Slav Peril, Pan-Germanism, Pan-Islamism, and the rest, are foreign in their nature, and need the historic imagination to realize them. But a citizen who gets the notion that the Woman-Peril threatens to overwhelm all things holy, may see it smiling at him across the tea-table. It is no figment of the imagination that confronts him. And the Peril can always talk back when he cries Avaunt!
Forty years later, in "Whatever Happened to Women's Rights?" (March 1964), Paul Foley -- yes, another man -- took women to task for their failure to exercise their right to vote. Lamenting the weak participation of women as politicians and voters, Foley asked why this state of affairs existed. Although he noted that "there is no doubt that real, though subtle, prejudice against women still exists," Foley revealed his own prejudices by placing the blame squarely on women. "Why?" he asked.
Because too many young American women of college age shy away from the commitments which are necessary to make the most of themselves as individual human beings. They are exhibiting a growing tendency to avoid a career commitment ... in order to enter early into the marriage lottery.
By the 1990s, Steven Stark could report, in "Gap Politics" (July 1996), women were finally beginning to establish themselves as a political force -- one with a distinct Democratic bias. "With a gender split increasingly driving our politics," Stark wrote, "many of the issues on the national agenda -- from welfare to health care to abortion -- have been the bases for an indirect debate on the changing roles of women and men." And he went on to add:
The emerging party-identification gap between the sexes is unprecedented. Each party and its candidates now appear to represent, at least in part, the interests of one sex against the other. Thus the gap is responsible for much of the changing ideological orientation of both parties -- and the outcome of elections and the direction of government policy.
Although the gender gap between parties is indeed pronounced, Elinor Burkett, writing in "In the Land of Conservative Women" (September 1996), drew attention to the rise to prominence and power of women in the Republican party. "If we could do as well with women as we do with men," Burkett quoted the then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich as saying, "we'll be the dominant party for the next generation." More telling, perhaps, was what Stanley Greenberg, a Democratic pollster who served the Clinton campaigns, told Burkett about the female electorate. "This is probably the most important segment of the electorate in 1996," he said. "And it is absolutely up for grabs."

Greenberg's pronouncement holds true for the 2000 election, and it's likely that the campaigns of Elizabeth Dole and Hillary Rodham Clinton are going to be closely watched to see what they reveal about the state of women and politics today. This is not necessarily a good thing. As Wendy Kaminer points out, in "The Grads of '69" (June 1999), "If one goal of feminism was to dismantle stereotypes of femininity, for the sake of individualizing and humanizing women, then the erection of female icons is a sign of its failures."


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