Female candidates over come the 'credibility gap'

Ellen R. Malcolm

August 06, 1992|By Ellen R. Malcolm

THE PROSPECTS for electing women to high offices in 1992 are exhilarating.

But as the "year of the women" unfolds, a pattern of personal attacks against female candidates has emerged.

Using familiar stereotypes, the attackers are trying to undercut the credibility of the women running for office, from Pennsylvania to California.

Female candidates have to prove themselves again and again to voters and the press, long after their male opponents have estab

lished themselves.

Whether these women are criticized for their fund-raising skills or the management of their campaigns, it all boils down to "they can't win."

Often these accusations are launched not in paid advertising but with behind-the-scenes sniping and whispering campaigns: For example, the opposing candidate's camp might give commentators "inside" analysis to pass on to the public.

Time and again I am told by someone in great confidential detail why a particular female candidate cannot win.

Men's campaigns are criticized too, but not with the same level of minutiae as the women's.

My favorite recent example of this was the buzz that Carol Moseley Braun's Senate campaign in Illinois was (gasp!) disorganized.

I have been in many campaigns and few of them were models of efficiency. But to trivialize Ms. Braun's campaign because junior-staff people quit or the candidate was late for lunch is to set a standard of excellence that no campaign could meet.

The Braun campaign raised more money than any other Senate challenger in the last three months, and the latest Illinois poll puts her 35 percent ahead of her opponent. I wish all our candidates had such problems.

Conventional wisdom, the nemesis of female candidates, often has it that a particular woman cannot raise money for her race.

Early on both Geraldine Ferraro in New York and Barbara Boxer in California were considered good Senate candidates, but conventional wisdom -- as divined by pundits -- pronounced that they could never compete financially with their male opponents.

Paradoxically, the eight female Senate candidates already nominated this year raised 25 percent more money than their male opponents in the last three months.

Men often have networks of large donors to tap. Female candidates such as Mr. Boxer and Ms. Ferraro have successfully relied on small contributions from many people.

Ms. Boxer's impressive California primary victory was made possible by thousands of checks for $25 and $100, and Ms. Ferraro has taken the lead in the New York polls with the same strategy. They each have more than 50,000 contributors.

If a female candidate's political skills are proven, her detractors sometimes denounce her by attacking the people around her, especially men.

In Pennsylvania, for example, Lynn Yeakel, the Democratic Senate candidate, was criticized by an ally of her opponent for her father's record on civil rights in the 1960s.

And recently, several people across the country have complained to me that Ms. Yeakel is not supportive of Israel. What are the grounds for this inaccuracy? Her minister made statements on the Middle East that were construed as anti-Israel.

Ms. Yeakel has said she is unequivocally committed to the integrity of Israel; she favors continuing current levels of assistance and extending U.S. loan guarantees for resettlement of Jewish immigrants. But this has not ended the whispering.

Neither has the fact that a speaker at a forum on the Mideast at her church was her opponent, Sen. Arlen Specter.

Perhaps any time a new political group breaks down barriers, questions arise about its members' ability to act on their own. Remember the concerns that John F. Kennedy, the first Roman Catholic president, would be influenced by the pope?

The antidote to attacks on female politicians' credibility is the women themselves.

The candidates for the House and Senate are quite able to go toe to toe with their opponents, and a record number will win in 1992.

These victories will help change public perceptions and help future candidates fight negative stereotypes.

And we will begin to see enough women in high office that our representative democracy actually begins to represent all the people.

Ellen R. Malcolm is president of Emily's List, a fund-raising network that helps Democratic women running for office.

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