Crashing the Locker Room
Why are there so few women in Congress? Why is it especially difficult for women to make it to the Senate? With a record number of women running for the Senate this year, our reporter takes a careful look at the obstacles in the way of women candidates and at their emerging advantages.
In her thirteen years as a senator from Arkansas, Hattie Caraway, the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate, made only fifteen speeches on the floor. "And they say women talk all the time," she wrote in her diary, after listening to her colleagues' orations. A former housewife who inherited her husband's seat in 1931 and was re-elected to it twice, Caraway was known as Silent Hattie or The Woman Who Holds Her Tongue. I haven't the heart to take a minute away from the men," she explained. "The poor dears love it so."
Telling me this story at the outset of an interview, Nancy Kassebaum, a Republican senator from Kansas, at first seemed like Hattie Caraway, less embittered than bemused by the male monopoly on the Senate. Although she and the Maryland Democrat Barbara Mikulski are the only two women in the Senate today, she does not, she told me, wish for more women senators so much as she wishes for more moderate Republican ones. She called herself a U.S. senator, not a woman senator, in commenting on her vote in favor of Justice Clarence Thomas's nomination to the Supreme Court, and she said she has not felt disadvantaged by her sex in any of her campaigns or committee assignments. Kassebaum sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, overseeing a traditional male preserve. Still, she mused, men's voices do have more authority on foreign-policy issues. "There's an indifference to the contributions one can make," she said, only a little obliquely. "What I can resent is indifference"—which apparently extends even to areas in which women might be expected to have considerable expertise. "I was never once asked by anyone at the White House or by any of my colleagues about how I reacted to Anita Hill's public allegations of sexual harassment or how I thought the allegations should be handled, which was kind of interesting," Kassebaum recalled.
Both Kassebaum and Mikulski, however, were invited to sit with the Judiciary Committee during the Thomas-Hill hearings. Both declined. "Barbara and I felt it would have been demeaning," Kassebaum explained. Mikulski, who voted against the Thomas confirmation, was a little more direct when I spoke with her: "I was not on the committee. It was not my job to give an imprimatur to the hearings. It was not my job to prop them up or do a whitewash."
Precisely what other role the two women senators might have played on the committee was unclear. Their invitation was issued in haste, on the morning of Hill's testimony, when Mikulski called Senator Joseph Biden to protest the proceedings. (She previously had asked for a delay to investigate the allegations.) "It was fifteen minutes before the hearings began!" she exclaimed. "I wasn't even in Washington; I was in Baltimore." Sometimes, as Nancy Kassebaum says, there's indifference.
That the Senate is indifferent to women's voices and concerns is the kindest interpretation of the Thomas-Hill hearings offered by many women. Male senators tended to ignore or trivialize the charges of sexual harassment because, Bella Abzug, the former New York congresswoman, asserts, "they do it all the time." Abzug echoes a common refrain. "It's a way of life for them." Ellie Smeal, the founder of The Fund for the Feminist Majority, is blunter, recalling what a male lobbyist once told her about male legislators: "They fish together, they hunt together, they play cards together, and they whore together."
Whether or not outrage over the Thomas-Hill hearings is confined to politically active professional women, as some claim, whether or not that outrage will affect the upcoming election (it has already cost Alan Dixon, an Illinois Democrat who voted for Thomas, his seat, and may defeat Arlen Specter, of Pennsylvania, as well), whether or not the public had its collective consciousness raised by Hill's story and the commentaries it engendered, the televised hearings provided an emotionally charged image of the Senate as an exclusive club for white males of a certain age. The committee looked like an aging former football team from some segregated suburban school.
Of course, the exclusion of women from Congress is not exactly news; it's history. Only fourteen women have ever served in the U.S. Senate, and the majority of them inherited their husbands' seats or were appointed for limited terms by governors with whom they had political or personal connections. (Two governors have appointed their wives to vacant Senate seats: Edwin Edwards, of Louisiana, in 1972; and Bibb Graves, of Alabama, in 1937.) Only 117 women have served in the House since its inception. Out of 11,230 people who have served in Congress, only one percent have been women. Today there are two women in the Senate and twenty-eight women in the House (out of 435 members). In other words, women constitute 5.6 percent of Congress, an increase of only about three percentage points since 1971. Women have made considerably more progress at the state and local level, suggesting that they face a glass ceiling in politics, as they do in corporate life.
But statistics are a bore; the Thomas-Hill hearings were enthralling, to partisans on either side. "I was as enraptured by the hearings as anyone," Secretary of Labor Lynn Martin recalls. "They were sirenlike." In a post-literate age the video images of the Judiciary Committee were also powerfully persuasive; they dramatized the homogeneity of the Senate more than statistics and polemics ever could.
Someday Clarence Thomas's most fervent opponents may thank him for his help in electing women to the Senate. As an organizing tool, the Thomas-Hill hearings may do for women politicians in the 1990s what Roe v. Wade did for the New Right in the seventies. The dramatic upset primary victories of the senatorial candidates Carol Moseley Braun, in Illinois, and Lynn Yeakel, in Pennsylvania; the record number of women running for the Senate and the House; and record amounts of money pouring into women's campaigns have been among the biggest political stories of the year. Both Braun and Yeakel attribute their candidacies to the Senate hearings. Not only did the hearings make a lot of women angry but they "demystified the Senate," Braun says. "Instead of dignified men debating lofty issues, the public saw garden-variety politicians making bad speeches."
Why are garden-variety politicians invariably male? Why aren't more women in the Senate? You might also ask, Why aren't more women in corporate boardrooms, or at partnership meetings of major law firms?
You can usually predict the response to the question about women in the Senate (or the boardroom) if you know your respondent's ideology. Liberal Democrats and feminists talk about the ways in which women have been kept out of power by bias. Conservative Republicans and other traditionalists are likely to say that women have opted out, following a natural inclination to stay home. Moderates tend to focus on "structural" obstacles to women's political advancement—the power of incumbency and the fact that having entered political life in significant numbers relatively recently, women are still making their way up the hierarchy; women lack "bench strength," they say inside the Beltway. (The same explanation is often given for women's secondary status in the corporate world.)
The structural explanation sounds appealingly objective and is no doubt partly true, but it takes you back to your starting point. Why weren't women more active politically thirty years ago? Were they kept out of power or did they opt out, naturally? Do we have any basis for asserting what comes naturally to women when their choices have long been so unnaturally constrained?
The reasons for women's absence from the Senate are, of course, at least as complicated as the reasons for their absence from the upper echelons of most high-status professions. Socialization, custom, the division of labor within the home, access to contraception, some degree of choice, and, I suspect, considerable bias all play their roles. "The last time anything was simple, you were eight years old," Lynn Martin reminded me.
But to simplify just a little: Among political women and the experts who study them there is a clear consensus about the problems women candidates have traditionally faced. Again, people perceive bias through the scrim of ideology. More-conservative women candidates are likely to present it as a relatively minor problem; more-liberal candidates are likely to present it as a major one.
Talking to women from both parties, however, you hear complaints and observations about bias that are familiar to most professional women:
Women have a harder time than men establishing their credibility as candidates, because our traditional images of political leadership are male (along with our traditional images of trial lawyers and neurosurgeons). According to the Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, whose studies on women candidates are widely cited by Democrats, the credibility problem has "three prongs"—competence, electability, and toughness.
Men are presumed to be competent; women must prove they're competent. (Women internalize this message, some suggest, and think they have to be qualified to run; men just run.)
Women must also prove that they're viable candidates, capable of waging winning campaigns. This problem of proving electability is circular: women need to prove their viability to raise money, but they can't show that they're viable until they've raised money.
Women have a hard time proving that they're tough enough. Voters want candidates who will fight for them, but women who present themselves as fighters are likely to be considered strident, at best, or bitchy. Celinda Lake has observed, with apparently unintended poignancy, that a woman can also effectively establish toughness by pointing to some personal tragedy she's managed to overcome.
In addition to these general credibility problems (which seem to be lessening), women candidates also cite particular, familiar manifestations of bias. They commonly complain that the press pays too much attention to a woman's appearance. Josie Heath, a 1990 and 1992 Democratic senatorial candidate from Colorado, notes that she can describe her wardrobe by reading her campaign clips. Women are also plagued by questions about their marital status, no matter what it is. That a husband can be a serious liability was clearly shown by Geraldine Ferraro's vice-presidential campaign; Dianne Feinstein, the former mayor of San Francisco, and Josie Heath were also questioned about their husbands' finances. But the absence of a husband can be a liability too. Women candidates are "penalized by marriage," Barbara Mikulski says. "If you're married, you're neglecting the guy; if you're divorced, you couldn't keep him; if you're a widow, you killed him; if you're single, you couldn't get a man."
These problems of bias and the facts of family life underlie the primary structural obstacles to women's political advancement. Women tend to start their political careers later than men, after their children are grown, and so have less time to position themselves politically. Their place in the hierarchy and the presumption that women are not competent or electable make it difficult for them to raise money, and until recently fund-raising was cited as one of women's primary political problems. Fund-raising difficulties also reflect sex segregation throughout the job market (which is related, of course, to divisions of labor at home). Clustered in lower-paying jobs, women have less money to give to their candidates and causes. "Women tend to give in smaller amounts, and they give ideologically. They give for abortion rights or because they want to see someone fighting for Anita Hill," the Democratic consultant Nikki Heidepriem remarks. "Men tend to give for economic reasons, with an eye on the bottom line. The big money comes from entrepreneurs and corporate types who do business in Washington, and they tend not to be women."
So what? Some men, and women, readers are probably impatient by now with these laments. Male candidates are not all well connected; they, too, have trouble raising money, challenging incumbents, and receiving what they consider fair treatment from the press. Appearance and image matter for men as well—graduate students in men's studies could write treatises on the politics of baldness. Minority men can probably point to at least as much bias as white women can (and have even less representation in the Senate). The generalizations about the special problems of women candidates are only generalizations. Each candidate has his or her own combination of advantages and disadvantages, involving not just sex and race or ethnicity but also geography, ideology, telegenicity, shrewdness, wit, personal history, and luck. Women complaining of bias don't deny this. They do claim that although the factors in each race are different, the balance of factors, particularly in statewide and federal elections, generally favors men.
The party apparatuses and operatives also favor men, particularly in the eyes of Democratic women. Republican women candidates don't as a rule offer much public criticism of their party, except perhaps on the issue of abortion. Democratic women don't as a rule offer much praise; instead, many scoff at the suggestion, that their party is doing enough for women.
Levels of mistrust are high. Jane Danowitz, of the Women's Campaign Fund, is convinced that Dianne Feinstein would not have had a primary challenge in her bid this year for the California senate had she been a man. "Feinstein almost won the 1990 California gubernatorial race. She was the party's standard-bearer. Had she been a man, they would have cleared the field." Who's they? "You can start with George Mitchell [the Senate majority leader] and Chuck Robb [the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee]. 'There is an old-boys' network that could have dried up the money for any other candidate entering the race." Kam Kuwata, Feinstein's campaign manager, dismisses this suggestion (as do a few other political women). The political director of the DSCC, Don Foley, stresses that the national party stays out of primary battles (as it is required to do). "They stay out officially but they go in the back door when they want," Danowitz charges.
The old boys, however, are beginning to change their ways, Danowitz adds. Since January of this year the DSCC has been holding unprecedented meetings with the women's political community and showing increasing concern for women candidates. Given the remarkable momentum of women this year, a resurgence of feminism, and a pervasive disgust for incumbents, it's fair to call this a foxhole conversion. Given the history of party politics, redemption may not be so easy.
Whether or not they believe that the party in effect conspires against them, women often describe it as a locker room. At the national level "both parties take a very conventional approach to recruitment," according to Anita Dunn, an aide to New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley and a former senior staffer at the DSCC. "They look at the governors and the visible congressmen. Recruitment is a very subjective process, depending on the same small, predominantly male circles. And if you're a Democrat, the conventional wisdom is that you shouldn't run a candidate who's perceived as liberal, as are most Democratic women in the House." Sometimes, Dunn adds, "'liberal' is a code word for 'woman."'
At the state level the locker room is smaller and perhaps even more firmly established. New Jersey Republican Christine Todd Whitman, who ran a surprisingly close race against Bradley in 1990, believes that if the party had thought it had any chance of defeating Bradley, it never would have nominated a woman to run against him.
"All politics is local, and at the local level there's a group that says, 'We'll run Bob. He's my buddy,"' Colorado Congresswoman Pat Schroeder says. Schroeder recalls the party's "anointment" of Tim Wirth for the Senate seat that Gary Hart vacated in 1986. She had been in Congress longer than Wirth but, she says, was not even considered for the seat. "The party regulars said, 'We'll run Tim, he's our candidate, because it's so hard on him, having to raise money to run for the House every two years—as if it's easy for me."
The implication of bias in Schroeder's story may or may not be fair, but it indicates a pervasive view of the parties as men's clubs in which women are only tokens. That view has led at least a few Democratic women to demand affirmative-action plans for candidates. "The parties say, 'We don't discriminate; women can run,'" Bella Abzug observes. "But we're running against the tide of history. It's not enough to say 'We don't discriminate."' Women advanced professionally partly because of affirmative action, the argument goes; they may not advance politically without it.
In fact the Democratic Party does have an affirmative-action plan for delegates; devising a plan for candidates is a bit more problematic (as well as extremely unpopular). Affirmative-action plans for candidates may be feasible only in parliamentary systems, in which the parties run slates of candidates. But Abzug has a suggestion—or, rather, a demand. She has recently helped launch a campaign calling on the parties to nominate only women for open seats. "This may not be the idea that will do it, but I'm trying to get people to think creatively. I want people to be more creative and demanding."
Meanwhile, according to one Democratic consultant, "The Democratic Party has all it can do to get out of bed in the morning. You can say it's not doing much for women, but it's not doing much of anything at all. Apart from fund-raising, which is important, collecting some data, and holding an occasional conference, the best thing the Democratic Party can do is get out of the way."
Whether or not the Democratic Party has the will to promote women, it lacks the means. "The Republicans have a recruitment budget; we don't," says Don Foley, of the DSCC. The political consultant Ann Lewis explains that the Republicans also have an organizational advantage when it comes to promoting women. "The Republican Party is a top-down hierarchy with centralized fundraising. The Democratic Party is best understood as a federation of state parties. The only truly national Democratic operation is the presidential selection process. Everything else is run state by state, and some states are surer, swifter, and richer than others."
Because they had more resources and more control over their own system, Republicans made more progress recruiting women in the early 1980s, according to Lewis, who used to recruit for the Democrats. "My Republican counterpart would go to candidates and say, 'We'll get the nomination. We'll max on funding.' I'd say, 'Look, it's going to be a lot of fun, but you're going to have to fight for the nomination, and maybe I can get you a dollar."'
Republicans also had more incentive to recruit women candidates after the gender gap appeared, in 1980, showing that women were more likely to vote Democratic. According to Kathy Wilson, a board member of the National Republican Coalition for Choice, "The gender gap scared them to death. The appointment of Sandra Day O'Connor was no accident. Republicans are shrewd, and they realize they need women to temper the Republican image." Republicans, because "they are better marketers than Democrats," are interested in fielding women, Ann Lewis says, summing things up. "Democrats think of politics as organizing. Republicans think of politics as marketing."
But Republicans have had the same problem marketing women candidates that Democrats might have had marketing SDI. The party has a credibility problem on women's issues. Running as a Republican can be a disadvantage to women candidates who seek support from women voters concerned with such issues as abortion, family leave, and health care. Claudine Schneider, a former congresswoman from Rhode Island who unsuccessfully challenged the incumbent senator Claiborne Pell in 1990, is convinced that she would have fared better as a Democrat. "Many women believe the myth that Republicans are bad for women and Democrats are good for them," she says. Lynn Martin, who lost a 1990 Senate race in Illinois to the incumbent Democrat Paul Simon, reports a similar disadvantage among women voters: "One group of voters won't vote for you because you're a woman; another group of women voters won't vote for you because you're a Republican." (Martin does not attribute her loss to bias; like Claudine Schneider, she was up against a popular incumbent.)
"The Republican Party is interested in the concept of promoting women, but they have an ideology problem," Ann Lewis says. During the 1980s the party's primary electorate became increasingly conservative—anti-abortion and strongly in favor of "traditional" family roles—and resistant to electing women. Democrats have no similar ideology problem, but they have financial and organizational problems and, it seems, lack the requisite marketing skills-the ability to dramatize their message.
A campaign is a morality play, in the view of Larry K. Smith, a former manager of a presidential and several senatorial campaigns, and now counselor to the House Armed Services Committee. "A campaign is a contest over values and norms, not issues," he says. "Every campaign is a story about the candidate and the nation." The Democratic Party has distanced itself from voters, Smith suggests, by taking a "literalist" approach to campaigning, rather than a dramatic one. Instead of telling a first-person story about values, it has told a third-person story about issues.
Whether this is an accurate assessment of the Democratic Party in general (and not just of the Dukakis campaign), it does provide a useful perspective on women in politics. Women candidates have stories to tell different from men's, because, like it or not, they represent to voters different visions of authority and different values.
The primary storytellers in campaigns, however, aren't candidates but their media consultants—the majority of whom are men. They tend to imagine campaigns in ways that are inapposite to many women: their favorite campaign metaphors involve football and war; they tend to see themselves as hired guns. The consultant Wendy Sherman, a partner in the Washington firm Doak, Shrum, Harris, Sherman, Donilon and one of few women at the top of her field, suggests that the failures of male consultants to women are failures of imagination: "Consultants often get caught up in what is conventionally wise, and generally what's conventionally wise is what white men believe—because there are more of them inside the Beltway in positions of power."
That men's conventional wisdom sometimes misconceives women's political potential was demonstrated by Barbara Mikulski's successful 1986 Senate campaign. She was a popular congresswoman seeking an open seat in a contested primary, but "people inside the Beltway said she could not become a senator," Sherman, who was Mikulski's campaign manager in 1986, told me. "She didn't look like a senator, she didn't act like a senator, she didn't sound like a senator." For voters, however, that turned out to be the essence of her appeal. Sherman explained, "They looked at her and said, 'She's ours, and we may finally have a voice in the U.S. Senate, and we don't look like senators either."'
The connection voters felt to Mikulski partly reflected her history of service in the House, Sherman added, but it also reflected and was strengthened by her sex. That women candidates seem more accessible to voters is indeed part of the new conventional wisdom; it's evidenced by the tendency to call women in authority by their first names.
Because women are expected to be more nurturant than men, one of the biggest mistakes for a woman candidate, according to experts, is running harshly negative ads. A frequently cited horror story about a woman's campaign and a male consultant involves a series of negative ads that Bob Squier produced for Harriett Woods in her unsuccessful 1986 Senate campaign in Missouri—the "crying-farmer spots."
These were a series of interviews with a farmer and his wife suffering a foreclosure by an insurance company whose board included Woods's opponent, Kit Bond. Run as a dramatic three-part serial (like an AT&T commercial), the ad included a shot of the farmer breaking down and sobbing as he talked about losing his cows. It concluded with freeze frames of the farmer and Kit Bond, and attacked Bond for opposing a moratorium on farm foreclosures.
Woods and her staff initially opposed Squier's advice to air the spots early in the campaign. Then, against her better judgment, Woods says, she "caved in." She ran the ad, and it sparked a controversy that badly damaged her campaign. The local press was critical; the ad was deemed unfair and exploitative. Squier's partner, William Knapp, concedes that "the ad did not work as well as we would have liked," but believes that had Woods stayed on the attack, she would have prevailed. Instead, she fired Squier, her campaign seemed to be in trouble, and that became a story in itself. Woods believes that the image of an "inept" woman candidate who couldn't keep her own campaign in order resonated with voters and political elites.
Woods, now the president of the National Women's Political Caucus, does not believe that she lost the election simply because of the ad—"1986 was a year in which factory workers stayed home or voted Republican." She is no longer "brooding" about her loss, but in talking about Squier and the crying-farmer controversy, she stiffens with anger. Her mistake, she says, was not in firing Squier, as one spin on the story suggested; it was in hiring him. She was uneasy about his style and his understanding of her identity from the beginning: "I worried that he didn't care who I was; he could talk to me and never listen. So I arranged a lunch with him. I thought, If he knows who I am, I can trust him to translate it. We had the lunch, and he talked the whole time about himself."
Women's tales of male arrogance are legion in the political community, as they generally are in male-dominated occupations. You believe them or not, depending on your own experiences and sensitivities. The tales are hardly empirical evidence of bias, unconscious or intended. But they surely prove that women perceive bias and that they encounter difficulties in telling their own stories and forging their own political identities.
Despite the horror stories and the litany of complaints, however, prospects for women candidates seem to be dramatically improving. Women have impressive new fundraising networks, which enabled them to capitalize on outraged support for Anita Hill. Political outsiders are in vogue, and optimists expect women to gain at least fifteen to twenty seats in Congress this year. In the aftermath of the Thomas-Hill hearings, at the end of the Cold War, in the midst of a recession, with battles over abortion looming in the states, the new conventional wisdom from the women's political community is upbeat. (It will sound a little pat, but that's part of its appeal.) This is what you're likely to hear today from politically active women, and some men, pollsters, organizers, consultants, and candidates, Democrats and quite a few Republicans alike.
Women are perceived as being more honest than men, so they benefit from general concern about corruption. Women are outsiders, so they benefit from the anti-incumbency mood (women embody change, everyone says). Women are perceived as being more compassionate than men and better at dealing with the quotidian domestic problems—day care, education, and potholes—that are displacing concern about communism and national defense (which men are considered better able to address).
Republicans and Democrats differ as to whether the current climate favors Republican or Democratic women. The pollster Celinda Lake says that the combined strengths of Democrats and women on domestic issues are helpful; Kathy Wilson, of the National Republican Coalition for Choice, says that the combination of Democratic and presumptively feminine values is hurtful: "Too much compassion makes people clutch at their wallets." Republican women, she says, offer both compassion and fiscal competence—a quality that is particularly important to women. Sometimes women's advantage on domestic issues is said to be offset by a lack of credibility on fiscal matters. But the presumption that women don't understand budgets is usually said to be balanced by the presumption that they're honest. The media consultant William Knapp says, "There's a sense that a woman may not know how to fill out a general ledger sheet, but at least she won't steal." Ann Lewis remarks, "The stereotypes that used to work against us are now working for us."
It is probably not realistic even to hope that women might someday win or lose elections without being helped or hurt by stereotypes. Campaigning is the art of the superficial: it's about rhetoric, not policy, the manipulation of images, not the exchange of ideas. And, as everyone I interviewed reminded me, voters have different images of men and women: Men are tougher, et cetera. Women care more about their constituents; they're better housekeepers—and, as Jane Addams once suggested, government is "enlarged housekeeping" on a grand scale.
The use of feminine stereotypes to advance a feminist agenda is a central, historic irony of the American women's movement. Late-nineteenth-century social reformers like Addams and Julia Ward Howe championed what were considered feminine virtues-honesty, compassion, and heightened concern for moral behavior—arguing that women, once empowered, would bestow good government and peace upon the public. Stereotypes of femininity helped to fuel the suffrage movement, providing a rationale for women's participation in political life. Many women sought the vote not for its own sake, as a matter of right, but as a means of achieving womanly reforms. Listening to women candidates today, you sometimes hear a similar argument for electing women to high office: with their different voices, women will foster cooperation instead of confrontation in domestic and foreign affairs; as nature's housekeepers, women will clean up the environment.
The dangers of using stereotypes like these should be clear to generations of women who have had to prove their unfeminine ability and had to fight for the right to exercise power overtly outside the home, as well as covertly within it. By claiming "feminine" virtues, women may effectively deprive themselves of "masculine" strengths. Whether women candidates can exploit feminine stereotypes without ultimately being defeated by them is an unasked question at the heart of many women's campaigns.
Women politicians can hardly avoid stressing the qualities attributed to them which voters find appealing, but they have to stress them carefully, in very particular ways. "If a woman runs for governor and says, 'I'm gentler, nicer, and like children better,' she sounds as if she's running for day-care supervisor," Ann Lewis remarks. "On the other hand, what she can say is 'I know what real life is like. I know what budgets are like, what it is like to pay hospital bills and try to make ends meet. And when I go to the governor's office, I'll bring that knowledge with me.'"
Voters of both parties are likely to be persuaded by this message, Celinda Lake suggests, particularly during a recession; she observes in a 1991 report, "Winning With Women," that voters believe that women are better at "meeting the needs of the middle class." Lake surveyed about 1,160 voters, testing their reactions to "generic" male and female Republican and Democratic candidates. (She found, for example, that a generic Democratic woman would fare better than a generic Democratic man against a generic Republican man.) The trouble with this study, of course, is that neither campaigns nor candidates are generic; if all politics is local, then every race is unique, as is every candidate.
Some women also point out that previous predictions of victories for women did not come true. They said that women would win in 1990, the Republican pollster Linda DiVall recalls, but eight women ran for the Senate and seven lost. Claudine Schneider, who lost her 1990 challenge to Claiborne Pell, says that "for the first time," women's political future seems "foggy." Schneider says, "I still believed that with eight women running for Senate in 1990, at least half would be elected. When I lost, I was disappointed. When all the other women lost [except for the incumbent Nancy Kassebaum], I was devastated."
Congresswoman Pat Schroeder, too, is less than hopeful. She says, "The same women have been talking optimism for a long time, but here we are, in 1992, and we have only twenty-eight women in the House." Schroeder is also skeptical about assessments of the national mood and people's preoccupation with domestic concerns. "Something like the Gulf War rolls around, and the mood changes overnight. You could change the polls in two days if you suddenly got everyone in their flight suits bombing Qaddafi. The testosterone is flowing, and everyone's cheering—guys in the reserves put on their suits and they run the military hardware in the mall and crawl all over it. Great images."
At the national level, Schroeder adds, the electorate's focus shifts back and forth between domestic and international issues, and men are considered better able to handle both. In other words, men are less disadvantaged by stereotypes on domestic issues than women are on foreign policy. Schroeder says, "We'd look sillier than Dukakis in a tank."
Traditional images of women pose the stubbornest challenge on national-security issues. The challenge comes from voters who don't trust women's capacity for military command and also from within the feminist community. There is a strong, historical strain of pacifism in the women's movement, embodied by Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress. Rankin voted against the popular resolution to declare war against Germany in 1917, to the dismay-of her constituents. She voted her conscience and lost her office; she was defeated in a race for Senate the following year. She never recanted her vote or her pacifism. Fifty years later she was marching to protest the Vietnam War. Rankin died in 1978, at ninety-two, having devoted much of her life to the peace movement. She is an American feminist hero; at women's rallies against the Gulf War last year, her name was invoked, along with the image of women as peacemakers.
Jeanette Rankin is, however, a problematic role model for women candidates. Not every woman will or should sacrifice her office for a symbolic vote of conscience. Not every woman will or should be a pacifist; and to advance in the Senate and into the White House, women will have to convince the voters that they're prepared to go to war.
That may seem self-evident, but within the women's community it is a highly controversial position, an unholy assertion of feminist machismo. "We would know we had the first woman candidate for President when we saw a woman senator on a battleship, reviewing the troops," Ann Lewis recalls saying to a group of women. "And someone said, 'That's terrible. Do we have to repeat the military tradition?' And I said, 'No, you don't have to repeat it. You can vote for Mother Teresa."'
This dialogue between pragmatism and purity is a staple of the women's community. In the Rankin tradition, significant factions of women have long practiced a politics of purity, promising to reform and cleanse the world in their own image, holding women candidates to higher standards than men, and seeking, in Lewis's words, "higher visions of ourselves."
The persistence and pervasiveness of this tradition and its broad implications for electoral politics are difficult to measure. Women candidates do commonly complain, however, that they are held to higher standards by voters than men are. The political double standard, like the double standard of sexual behavior, reflects both negative and positive stereotypes of women: voters tend to have lower expectations of women's ability and higher expectations of their intent. The suspicion that women are less competent than men gives them less leeway to make mistakes. The notion that women are more moral than men makes them more accountable for behavior that raises even minor moral questions.
In addition, women's funding networks are said by candidates and campaign managers to be tougher on their candidates than men's networks, according to a 1989 survey by Celinda Lake. And women candidates may have unrealistic expectations of their constituents, Lake suggests today. "I don't think women's interest groups are tougher; I think women candidates expect them to be easier. Running for office is a very isolating experience for a woman. Candidates want to believe they can go back to women supporters for nurturance."
In fact in recent years the women's political community has become more "tough-minded" than nurturant. In Washington, at least, pragmatism has clearly displaced purity. Organizations like EMILY's List, a Democratic fundraising network, the National Women's Political Caucus, and the Women's Campaign Fund practice savvy, bottom-line politics, supporting only those candidates deemed to be electable. This practice is not universally acclaimed, however. Patricia Ireland, the president of the National Organization for Women, dismisses it as a "politics of scarcity" that deters qualified women from running. She prefers "flooding the ticket."
While organizations like EMILY's List and the National Women's Political Caucus represent the new insider politics for women, NOW remains on the outside, along with Ellie Smeal's Fund for the Feminist Majority. Insider women—lobbyists and consultants—often deride NOW for obstructionist ideological purity, pointing out that politics is the art of the possible; but that may not be quite fair. Activists like Ireland and Smeal view the possibilities differently. "I think we're the ones who are pragmatic," Smeal remarks.
Patricia Ireland and Ellie Smeal advocate the formation of a third party, not just for women but, as Ireland says, "for all people excluded from power"—a rainbow coalition of the marginal. It's hardly surprising that insider feminist women prefer to put their faith in the Democratic Party, rejecting this idea, sometimes gently and sometimes with contempt. Lynn Cutler, the vice-chair of the Democratic National Committee, calls creating a third party "the most self-destructive endeavor for women I can imagine." Pat Schroeder suggests that it's premature to talk about a third party, because "we don't yet have a second party."
Smeal isn't interested in reforming the Democratic Party, because of her firm belief that "the Republican boys and Democratic boys have more in common with each other than they do with a feminist agenda." The Democratic girls and Republican girls, she adds, have more in common with each other as well. Smeal puts her faith in sexual solidarity.
It's highly likely that since the Thomas-Hill hearings more women of both parties have sympathized with Smeal's position than had before. Linda DiVall speculates that "as a long shot," women may cross party lines in November to vote for one another. Jane Danowitz, of the Women's Campaign Fund, suggests that the hearings have lessened party loyalties for Democrats particularly and have diminished the importance of ideology in campaigns: "Before the hearings, issues like reproductive choice were paramount over gender, and there was a feeling that good men were as good as good women. But those good men failed us. We'll come of age when we realize that a mediocre woman is as good as a good man."
Smeal says she learned this lesson and came of age more than a decade ago, when she unsuccessfully lobbied the Illinois legislature to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. "We were dressed in green and the STOP-ERA women were dressed in red. We were the cheerleaders and the guys were on the field, strutting around and guffawing at their stupid sexist jokes. I woke up and saw that, this was a stag game and even the good guys play it."
Smeal recalls a male United Auto Workers lobbyist explaining to her, "It doesn't matter if they're Democratic or Republican. It doesn't matter if they're liberal or conservative. It doesn't matter if they're pro-labor or anti-labor. What matters to them is that there's a card game in the back room and you women don't know where it is. Democrats, Republicans, liberals, and conservatives are all playing cards back there. They're afraid if they let you in, you're going to find their card game and you'll say, 'You shouldn't be back here playing cards; you should be out there working,' because that's what wives and mothers always do."
Ellie Smeal's bleak image of sexual politics is powerfully depressing. (And I don't ever want her mad at me.) She articulates some of women's worst fears about male bonding, while the hope she offers of female bonding seems less compelling.
Smeal is convinced that once there are enough women in any legislature to form a critical mass, they will vote in the interests of their sex. (Accept for the sake of argument the questionable underlying assumption that those interests are clear.) She suggests, for example, that a moderate Republican, such as Nancy Kassebaum, would be more likely to promote a feminist agenda if she were one of thirty women in the Senate rather than one of just two. Kassebaum doesn't agree. "Women don't march in lockstep, nor should they," she asserts. "It diminishes women to say that we have one voice and everything in the Senate would change if we were there."
Each point of view has considerable support among political women. "If we had fifty percent women in Congress instead of five percent, we'd have family and medical leave," Patricia Ireland declares. "I don't want women there for the sake of diversity; I want them there because I think our issues would move faster." Madeleine Kunin, the former governor of Vermont, says she saw changes in the voting patterns of the Vermont legislature as women gained more seats. But Lynn Martin says, "You belong to your party. You don't just vote by sex. The ballot says Lynn Martin (Rep.), not Lynn Martin (Fem.)."
The debate about the importance of sex is constant. Are you a woman candidate or a candidate who happens to be a woman or both? And how does sex interact with race or ethnicity in party politics? Carol Moseley Braun, the Democratic African-American who successfully challenged Alan Dixon in Illinois this year, says that she will "play the gender card" in, a campaign, indicating to women voters that she offers them a voice on their issues, but that she will not "play the race card," making a similar appeal to the black community. "Race is too divisive," she explains.
Why is an appeal to sexual solidarity not divisive too? Perhaps because sexual loyalties have always been mitigated by race (and class) more than race has been mitigated by sex.
Do party loyalties also trump sex? It is axiomatic within the feminist community that if there had been more women in the Senate, the Thomas nomination would have been doomed. But half of the (two) women in the Senate voted to confirm him, and several Republican women who ran for the Senate in 1990 say they would have confirmed him too.
Probing the remarks of women from both parties, however, you find that there is more agreement about the importance of sex than first appears. Republicans who stress that women vary ideologically (usually meaning that not all women are feminists) also stress that women have perspectives different from men's, which reflect their different life experiences and maybe even something in their nature. Republican and Democratic women often say that they would devote more attention than men to issues involving children and family life, regardless of how they would vote to address those issues.
There is, finally, some empirical evidence that women legislators do have perspectives different from men's, which lead to different legislative results. According to The Impact of Women in Public Of Office, a study released by the Center for the American Woman and Politics, at Rutgers University, women are making a "profound and distinctive" difference in their legislatures, promoting popular feminist concerns: "Elected women are working to make the agendas of legislative institutions more responsive to women's demands for equal rights as articulated by the contemporary women's movement and more reflective of women's concerns stemming from their roles as caregivers in the family and in society." Based on telephone interviews with male and female state legislators, the CAWP study asserts that men and women tend to have different policy priorities. Women, it says, "were more likely to give top priority to women's rights policies" and to "policies dealing with children and families and health care."
It should go without saying, but probably doesn't, that regardless of how women would vote in the Senate, they have a right to be there. Women candidates should not have to earn access to the Senate as they once "earned" the right to vote, by promising to make the world a kinder, gentler place. Still, as a practical matter, candidates have to satisfy the expectations of their constituents. How does the electorate divide on women's issues and the need for more women in office?
Candidates often say that polling data indicate that equally small numbers of voters would or would not vote for a woman on account of her sex. The majority of voters say that they consider the issues. It's difficult to know, however, how these statements correspond to behavior. Many people probably wouldn't say that they vote on the basis of sex, and many people are probably affected by unconscious biases. Celinda Lake and several candidates report that the strongest support for women candidates comes from educated, professional women under forty-five; the strongest opposition comes from older women who have fulfilled traditional domestic roles. There seems to be little if any hard data about the accuracy of these generalizations as applied to different racial and ethnic groups.
Everybody knows there's a gender gap—differences in male and female voting patterns—but nobody knows how wide it is or how deep or reliable. As Eleanor Holmes Norton, the nonvoting delegate to the House from the District of Columbia, says, "We've been hearing about it, seeing evidence of it, for at least twelve years, and yet have been blown away by anti-feminist men. At some point we ought to stop talking about the gender gap and try to understand it."
So what precisely do we know about the gender gap? According to Virginia Sapiro, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, we know this: more women than men vote Democratic. We might also say, however, that more men than women vote Republican; and in fact, Sapiro, says, the gender gap was caused by men leaving the Democratic Party while women stayed put. She adds, "When the discussion about the gender gap began, the question was 'What is it about women?—reflecting an unspoken assumption that women are fickle. The question should have been 'What is it about men?"' Sapiro suspects that men became more conservative during the Reagan years partly in reaction to "the wimpiness of the Carter years," as typified by the hostage crisis. But, she cautions, this, too, is merely speculation.
So there is a partisan gender gap, for some reason or other, and since women register to vote in greater numbers than men, it can be said to favor the Democrats. But, as Linda DiVall says, the gap can be bridged: Republican men, for example, can sometimes win women's votes by attaching themselves to issues such as health care and Social Security.
We know that there is also a gender gap on issues, as DiVall's strategy implies. Women are less likely to favor cutoffs in social spending, Virginia Sapiro says, and they're less likely to favor war.
The gender gap on issues is changeable, however, as Sapiro stresses. She says, "The gap on social-welfare issues will lessen if men start losing faith in the economic policies of the last ten years." And the gender gap on issues is much more complicated than it first appears. For example, it is conventional wisdom that concern about the economy helps women candidates, but the truth of that hope, or fear, depends on how people analyze the economic crisis. Sapiro explains, "Everyone agrees the economy is a problem. Some will blame it on policies that favored the rich at the expense of the poor, and will talk about homelessness and the need to improve social services. Some will blame it on the deficit and the fact that we've been too wimpy with the Japanese. People aren't going to vote for women to stand up to the Japanese."
"Now, that's gender politics, that's a gender gap," Sapiro concludes. "But it's a lot more complicated, unpredictable, and interesting than the gender gap is usually supposed to be."
"There are a lot of pieces on this chessboard," Eleanor Holmes Norton remarks. The gender gap is also complicated by racial and class issues. It cuts across racial lines, Norton believes, but with varying degrees of incisiveness. Take women's reactions to the Thomas-Hill hearings: sex interacted with race and class to divide public opinion every which way. Nonprofessional women seem to have found Anita Hill hard to believe, because they saw her as a woman with choices. Black women, Norton observes, were particularly troubled by the fact that Hill's allegations were made "at the last minute," because of a traditional concern within their community for procedural fairness, reflecting a history of unfair trials. "Blacks are very procedurally sensitive."
Still, many political women speculate hopefully that the Thomas-Hill hearings have activated diverse groups of women voters. Combined with fury over reversals of abortion rights, anger at the Thomas-Hill hearings may prove to have considerable political potency.
Or then again, it may not. When I spoke with her, Pat Schroeder was not sanguine. "I think women are feeling politically homeless more than empowered," she said. "You've got to win some now and again." Women in the House had just lost a battle on family leave, and Schroeder was contemplating powerlessness, including her own, and women's difficulties in confronting it. "Congresswomen aren't powerful. You get to the cloakroom and you're supposed to play ball. Women's issues aren't considered important. You're supposed to put them aside, not embarrass your colleagues, get with the program. 'Why don't you get on with something that matters?' they say. 'Why do you keep nagging us about family leave? And when you protest caps on sex discrimination in the Civil Rights Bill, they say, 'Aren't you petty?"'
Most women do not want to hear this from her, Schroeder says. "It sounds too painfully familiar. Most women feel in their core so much more vulnerable than men. They don't want to hear from a Pat Schroeder that congresswomen don't get powerful."
Schroeder is probably voicing what many political women feel, at least on occasion—as do some men, for individual congressmen probably don't have much power either. Balancing Schroeder's pessimism with the official optimism of the professional political women's community, you may glean some sense of how much and how little women progress. Despite the proliferation of focus groups and polls, assessing women's political prospects is hardly a science, and the best predictions are often confounded by irrational, uncontrollable events. You can characterize the American public as fundamentally decent and fair, or you can characterize it as fundamentally biased, ignorant, and cruel. Sometimes both characterizations seem equally true.
A lot of Americans are ready to elect more women to national and statewide office. And, as Pat Schroeder says, "A lot of Americans believe that Elvis is alive." Schroeder has been listening to talk radio, which is "vehemently anti-woman." She says, "I think they've decided to attack women with incredible vengeance because they're not afraid of us. They don't think we'll come and shoot them. Listen to hate radio for a week. Women who hope to break into the Senate had better be ready for trouble."