Bad year for women

William Safire

December 21, 1990|By William Safire

LONDON — THE WIREPHOTO showed a couple of blurred male faces in the background -- Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev, in their funereal dark suits and ties -- while in the forefront, Sazhi Umalatova, 37, a deputy elected by the angry citizens of Chechen-Ingush, a bright knitted jacket on her broad shoulders, lashed into the man at the top.

"You do not have the right to lead the WilliamSafirecountry," she said. "You brought devastation, hunger, cold, blood, tears." The defiant woman from the Caucasus answered the Soviet leader's demand for dictatorial powers with her own call for a vote of no confidence.

But only one-fourth of the 2,000 delegates in the Congress of People's Deputies -- mostly male apparatchiks -- voted with her; Gorbachev, ominously promising "discipline," prevailed.

The putdown of Mrs. Umalatova was symbolic: The decade of the '90s has begun badly for women in politics all around the world.

You may retort: What about Mary Robinson, first woman president of Ireland? And Vigdis Finnbogandottir, Iceland's head state, and Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, who defeated the Sandinistas to become president of Nicaragua? And hasn't Corazon Aquino managed to hang on in the Philippines?

That's about it for women in power. In Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto was driven from elective office; in Eastern Europe, only one woman, Kazimiere Prunskiene, chairwoman of Lithuania's Council of Ministers, rose to the top; in Japan, the nascent women's movement was squelched; in China, old men are determined to pass power to middle-aged men.

Here in Britain, the woman who stood alone among male world leaders was turned out in a party coup. When her Tory successor, John Major, announced his new Cabinet, it was remarked by the male leaders of the Labor opposition that not one member was a woman.

Of course, Margaret Thatcher had no woman in her Cabinet either; never a feminist, she did not think to provide high-level opportunity for members of her sex.

The Arab world? Forget it. Even in Israel, where tough-minded Golda Meir graced the Prime Minister's office, the "four princes" in Likud's successor generation have no place for a princess.

Ah, but what of the land of equal opportunity, where the U.S. Mint can't get rid of its Susan B. Anthony dollars? In closely watched Senate races in California, Illinois and Rhode Island, the women lost all three; one of the losing candidates, Rep. Lynn Martin, has been appointed labor secretary.

The low percentage of women with real political power in the U.S. is an offense to democratic ticket-balancing. Two senators out of a hundred; three governors out of 50; 6 percent of the seats in the House; and in cities with populations over 30,000, according to the Center for the American Woman and Politics, only one mayor in six is female.

If you're looking for a ray of light, that showing in cities is up from a pitiful one mayoralty in 25 cities 15 years ago, and a similar rise from a low base is reflected in state legislatures. Every administration in Washington boasts that it has appointed more women than ever before, and presumably political appointments encourage candidacies to elective office.

But progress is much too slow because women of every political stripe -- at home and around the world -- are letting down their own sexual side by not demanding more female candidates and by not supporting them when they run.

Granted, universal suffrage came to politics late; yes, women who are activists often turn off inactivists; sure, sex is not the main qualification for office. But now is now, women are voting -- and not enough women are candidates and too few of those are winning. Why?

The power of incumbency is an excuse, as is the tug of tradition and the demands of rearing children. The reason, however, is a dismaying lack of assertiveness of group identity.

"Vote as you shot" rallied veterans; "he's one of our own" pulled out ethnic and minority support; "no quotas" attracts whites. All other things on issues being roughly equal, women should strongly support women as women until some parity is reached.

Then, secure in a system in balance, they can throw the rascals out regardless of sex.

"I used to look at the papers," says an 88-year-old Englishwoman of whom I have long been fond, "and see Maggie right there, a splash of color in the middle of a bunch of men. Now all I see is a gray bunch of men."

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