Real Outsiders Are Not Nominated for High Office



LOS ANGELES. — Los Angeles -- Soon after the historic California primary put two women in Senate contention and 18 women among the finalists for the state's 52 congressional seats, I found myself amid a celebratory sea of women at a Los Angeles fund-raiser for State Treasurer Kathleen Brown, feeling a little grumpy around the edges.

But why? After all, it had been a long haul for women in politics. It was time to celebrate, as a quartet of female luncheon speakers clearly aimed to do and as numbers of women did again at the Democratic National Convention.

But what bothered me was some of the language they were using, a bit of pundit-speak, a standard sound-bite in this year's election. Namely that this was the year of the outsider, and women were the ultimate outsiders. Hence, the Year of the Woman.

I've heard that a lot and accepted it gratefully. Yes, we women are the ultimate outsiders. Yes, you've pushed us around long enough, ye of the backlash brigade, of the pin-stripe suit and the rep tie. Yes, it's our turn now.

But sitting in that room full of nominees and other dressed-for-success women -- the new relaxed ''feminine'' version (and believe me, I include myself in this) -- I was struck by the inappropriateness of the word ''outsiders.''

By what stretch of the imagination were any of us in that room outsiders, many of us with high incomes and higher educations? To call us that made about as much sense as calling political veterans Barbara Boxer or Dianne Feinstein (whose wealthy third husband helped bankroll her) outsiders. Or Ross Perot. This is an outsider? Hardly.

But we in the media -- and I implicate myself in this, too -- repeat the word without examining it. We played along with the billionaire's conceit and the conceit of the women candidates, a sleight of language and finally of conscience that renders true outsiders invisible.

After all, the real outsiders were not at that party or in Madison Square Garden.

The outsiders are out there, in the bleaker parts of our cities and towns. They're in housing projects and rental apartments and heavily mortgaged homes, hanging on, hanging in, losing jobs, losing ground, scared.

Single mothers trying to keep it together (not the upscale Murphy Brown kind, but the kind who have been deserted by men), older people on fixed incomes, multicultural kids who aren't being educated for the world in which they find themselves, people who have no sense of stake in the system.

I don't want to sound churlish. I know that many of those women nominees, delegates and, yes, reporters have fought hard personal battles to get where they are, often the first in their families to go to college or law school or run for political office -- good women, hard-working pioneers.

I also know that many of those women, like successful, educated women the country over, increasingly move around in a world of other professionals. Just like men. It happens. The circles narrow.

But then these women had better not appropriate for themselves the outsider label, because by doing so they disclosed just how insulated they really are, not to know who the real outsiders are anymore.

In my minor linguistic irritation, however, there is optimism that if we women try to keep honest, even about something so seemingly slight as our choice of words, we truly might be a transforming presence in politics, as corny or impossible as that might sound.

Anne Taylor Fleming is a Los Angeles writer working on a cultural history of American women.

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