'Year of the woman' in politics still an uphill fight

October 08, 1990|By Jack W. Germondand Jules Witcover | Jack W. Germondand Jules Witcover,Evening Sun Staff

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Claudine Schneider tells a story about a political action committee that readily gave money to Republican members of the House running for the Senate in Iowa and Michigan but only grudgingly to those in Illinois, Hawaii and here in Rhode Island. The difference, of course, is that the first two are men, the last three -- including Schneider -- are women.

"Fund-raising is one of the great challenges for a woman," says Schneider. "That is a reality."

But Schneider and other women running for office this year are discovering several hard realities about gender and politics. And the bottom line is that the campaign that was supposed to be "the year of the woman" is going to turn out to be something like other years -- meaning an uphill fight for women candidates who try to compete at the highest levels.

At the outset, the context of the 1990 campaign seemed tailored for women candidates. On the volatile abortion issue, they enjoy a natural advantage in being perceived as the ones who really understand the question and hold the strongest views. In cases where voter reaction against corruption, incumbency and the political establishment are important factors, women are given the benefit of the doubt. The key issues this year were supposed to be social questions -- education and health care, for example -- on which women again might enjoy a predisposition of the voters to credit them with greater expertise and sensitivity.

But with the election only a month away, the crisis in the Persian Gulf, the deficit question and the state of the economy have come to dominate the national agenda. As Celinda Lake, a Democratic poll-taker, puts it, "I thought we were going to get more of a boom this year than we're going to get. These other issues have crowded choice [on abortion] out a little bit." The result is a far different prospect than a "year of the woman." Of four women running for the Senate who were originally considered realistic possibilities, only one, Republican Patricia Saiki of Hawaii, is considered even or perhaps slightly ahead. Republican Schneider is within range of but obviously trailing Sen. Claiborne Pell here. And Republican Lynn Martin in Illinois and Democrat Josie Heath in Colorado are far enough behind to be pronounced underdogs. Two other Republican women, Jane Brody in Delaware and Christie Whitman in New Jersey, are running for exercise against Joe Biden and Bill Bradley.

Similarly, only two of seven women running for state governorships -- Dianne Feinstein of California and Joan Finney of Kansas -- seem to be competing on even terms so far.

In one sense, women politicians have already accomplished a significant breakthrough in winning nominations for major office -- the Senate or a governorship -- in cases in which their party has a genuine chance to win. Candidates such as Feinstein and Texas gubernatorial nominee Ann Richards are not running simply to take the fall, although there are several such cases in other states.

But they are also finding hurdles quite beyond money that they must clear to compete on even terms.

One significant problem is resistance to women candidates among older voters, those over 60 of both sexes, who are not comfortable with women in such positions -- or, as another poll-taker, Harrison Hickman, says, "people who think women have a traditional role to fill" that does not include the Senate or a governor's chair.

The resistance of older women is particularly striking in some cases, and the explanations vary widely. Robert Squier, a leading Democratic media consultant, says older women are particularly unforgiving of the woman candidate who makes a mistake. "There is a process there of not wanting to be embarrassed by them," he says.

Celinda Lake sees the problem with women as "a real conflict between a woman candidate and how they've spent their own lives."

Then there is the question of how women present themselves to the electorate. They are under extreme pressure to show they are tough enough for high office without projecting an image of unwomanly harshness. Linda DiVall, a Republican polling expert, says women candidates have to find "a careful balance between being aggressive and being too tough." Or, in Bob Squier's terms, "She can't be quote bitchy, but she has to be tough."

And the one thing a woman cannot do, says DiVall, is "fly off the handle."

Then there is the special problem of spouses. There have been several senators over the last few years whose wives have been involved in businesses that might raise questions of conflicts of interest. But none of those male incumbents have had to defend their wives' business interests as, for example, Feinstein has been obliged to answer questions about her financier husband, Richard Blum.

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