WORLD

A political battle of the sexes

Women candidates are challenging men’s control of Congress

HILARY MACKENZIE September 14 1992
WORLD

A political battle of the sexes

Women candidates are challenging men’s control of Congress

HILARY MACKENZIE September 14 1992

A political battle of the sexes

WORLD

Women candidates are challenging men’s control of Congress

THE UNITED STATES

According to the latest census figures, women make up 51 per cent of America’s 249 million people. But despite significant gains made over the past two decades, women remain an underrepresented force in U.S. politics. In the current Congress, there are only two women in the 100-seat Senate and just 29 among the 435 members of the House of Representatives. That may soon change. In this election year, proclaimed the Year of the Woman by many Americans, a record number of female candidates are running for high office. Many of them say that they became candidates to challenge macho, male-dominated politics of contemporary America. In Pennsylvania, where two-term Republican Senator Arlen Specter is in the fight of his political life against Democratic upstart Lynn Yeakel, a recent caller to a latenight radio talk show expressed the mood of impatience shared by many women voters. Said the caller: “I’m 42 years old. I have two kids. I’m not a feminist. I don’t have an agenda.

But I’m voting for Lynn Yeakel because it’s time.” And, to emphasize her point, she repeated: “It’s time to put women into high office.” The Pennsylvania race is only one of many where high-profile, highly organized and wellfinanced women candidates are threatening male incumbents. In the Nov. 3 election, a record 18 women are bidding for Senate seats, 15 of them Democrats. And 142 women are running for the House of Representatives, 88 of them Democrats. The women Democratic candidates, and even many of their Republican counterparts, are basing their campaigns on so-called women’s issues, such as abortion rights and equal opportunity. But, cautioned Eleanor Smeal, a former president of the influential National Organization for Women, victory in November would just be a start. “Even if we double the numbers in Congress, which I doubt, we will not even reach 10 per cent,” said Smeal. “It would be a burst forward but it would still be at the token level.”

Among male incumbents, Pennsylvania’s

Specter is particularly vulnerable because he was the Republicans’ designated pit bull in last fall’s controversial, nationally-televised Senate judiciary committee hearings on Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. They focused on University of Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill’s accusation that Thomas, her former boss at Washington’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sexually harassed her. Specter aggressively challenged Hill’s testimony—and publicly accused her of perjury. The 14-member, all-male committee ultimately supported Thomas. But the senator’s dogged performance at the hearings generated outrage and resentment among many women who claimed that the panel, and Specter in particular, had treated Hill unfairly. As well, they charged, American politics is dominated by an Old Boys club that misunderstands the needs and concerns of women.

That ground swell of anger could cost the 62-year-old Specter a third term in office. Opinion polls show the veteran running even

with Yeakel, 51, but among women voters the senator trails the challenger by nearly 2 to 1. Said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Pennsylvania’s Millersville University: “Anita Hill became the symbol of the powerlessness of women politically.” He added: “Lynn Yeakel symbolizes the unfulfilled political aspirations of women.” Still, the Pennsylvania campaign will be hard fought. Specter has painted Yeakel as a oneissue candidate—running on the Anita Hill hearings. One of his earliest supporters, Larry Yatch, a former state Democratic party chairman, also attacked her. Yatch derided Yeakel and women candidates in general by accusing them of saying to the electorate: “Here, I’ve got breasts—vote for me.” To counter charges that he is unsympathetic to women’s

causes, Specter has launched a $1-million advertising campaign, including testimonials from women he has helped, to portray himself as a strong supporter of such issues as abortion rights.

But as Pennsylvanians wrestle with an unemployment rate of 7.7 per cent—the national average—and the loss of 9,300 manufacturing jobs in July alone, political analysts say that Specter, as an incumbent, is vulnerable to criticism from Yeakel on another vital issue: the failed economy. Said Yeakel’s media consultant, Neal Oxman: “The issue is Arlen Specter and whether the people in Pennsylvania think the quality of life has gotten better in the past 12 years [during Republican control of the White House], By every measure it hasn’t.”

After the Thomas hearings, women mounted landmark campaigns in federal and state races—often fighting pitched primary battles

against their own party’s endorsed male candidate. In the Illinois primary last March, Democrat Carol Moseley Braun, a little-known municipal official, narrowly beat the powerful incumbent, Senator Alan Dixon. Braun, a fiery 44-year-old lawyer, former federal prosecutor and state representative, now leads her Republican opponent, lawyer Richard Williamson, by at least a 2-to-l margin in opinion polls. If she prevails in November, she will become the first black woman in the Senate.

Braun’s early success as the woman underdog, activists argue, gave instant credibility to other little-known contenders like Yeakel and provided momentum to many of the women’s campaigns. In California, where both Senate seats are being contested, Congresswoman Barbara Boxer and former San Francisco may-

or Dianne Feinstein sustained that hard-won impetus by winning Democratic primaries in June. Boxer now faces arch-conservative Bruce Herschensohn, whose extreme views on abortion have driven pro-choice Republicans (those who favor wide access to abortion) away from their own party to the Democrats. And the lively Feinstein faces a dour incumbent in Senator John Seymour.

Even Geraldine Ferraro has staged a rebirth from the land of the political dead. After financial scandals dogged her campaign as Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale’s running mate in 1984, Ferraro descended into relative obscurity. Now, pollsters favor her over her two rivals in next week’s primary in New York. The winner will face Republican Senator Alfonse D’Amato in November.

The Anita Hill controversy is only one of the reasons that analysts are predicting at least a

modest breakthrough by women. Braun, Boxer, Feinstein, Ferraro and Yeakel are among a crop of women who have been grooming themselves for a generation to assume senior leadership roles in political life. Aside from being pioneers in their professions—from law and medicine to business and education—they earned their political stripes on the lower rungs of the ladder as municipal representatives, school trustees, mayors and members of state legislatures. Said Betty Dooley, executive director of the Washington-based Women’s Research and Education Institute: “Twenty years of the women’s movement in the United States has laid the groundwork for 1992.”

Healthy war chests have also helped the new women candidates. The Democratic political action committee Emily’s List—Early Money Is Like Yeast (it makes the dough rise)—gave 14 prochoice Democratic women candidates $1.5 million in 1990, helping to elect two governors and seven members of Congress. This year, Emily’s List, whose contributors soared from 3,500 in 1990 to 20,000 in 1992 in the wake of the Thomas hearings, has raised $3.5 million for 43 women candidates. Its sister Republican organization, WISH List—Women in the Senate and House—has raised $300,000 for prochoice candidates.

Activists predict that the November elections will send five new women to the Senate and 20 more to the House. They maintain that I since the end of the Cold War, politicians experienced in de| fence, armaments and forç eign affairs are in less I demand than those who un| derstand the issues of health care, job security, education and welfare—areas of particular interest to women. Said Harriett Woods, who heads the bipartisan National Women’s Political Caucus: “American families are treading water and they will sink unless someone throws them a rope or gives them a boat. Voters see women as problemsolvers with integrity.”

Because America’s political fortress is manned by males, the women storming the gates may have an advantage this year. “Voters are saying, ‘Sweep them out,’ ” said Smeal. Jane Danowitz, executive director of the Women’s Campaign Fund, a bipartisan organization supporting pro-choice women candidates, added: “We’re the beneficiaries of throwing the bums out. And there are many more male bums.” As the November election approaches, the age-old battle of the sexes is front and centre on the American political stage.

HILARY MACKENZIE in Washington

HILARY MACKENZIE