Women jump into political fray Democrats and Republicans see new activists

September 11, 1992|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Staff Writer

What do women want?

This year, politically speaking at least, Freud would get several answers: To elect more women to the House and Senate. To right the wrong done to Anita Hill. To elect the presidential candidate most in tune with their concerns. To pass the state's abortion-rights referendum. To defeat the state's abortion-rights referendum.

"I think it's a kind of coming of age," said Celinda Lake, a Washington-based pollster. "Women have been building up more independent identities as a force in elections in recent years, and this year, it's come together."

The year of the woman, as pundits have dubbed this election year, apparently has trickled down to the grassroots level. Local campaigns say their phone lines have been abuzz with women who want to volunteer, invite political speakers to their next club meeting, get information on voter registration or otherwise become involved in this year's elections.

"There's definitely been an increase in interest and participation," said Lou Pierson, administrator of the Baltimore City chapter of the League of Women Voters. "Women are beginning to figure out they have political power. When you see women running and winning, it just sort of jars you -- you see the power you have."

Representatives of various campaigns say they've heard from more women and women's groups -- including churches, nursing schools, even Girl Scout troops -- this year than in past elections. For many women who have joined campaigns in various capacities -- from envelope-stuffing to press relations -- this is their first foray into political activism.

"I was home with my kids for 12 years," said Frederica Mathewes-Green, an Ellicott City woman working to defeat the state's abortion-rights referendum. "But this year, the abortion issue is bringing women out. If politics is personal, this certainly is personal."

"Every election year I said I would do something, but I never did," said Kathleen Riga, an elementary school counselor in Baltimore and a volunteer in the local [Democratic candidate Bill] Clinton effort. "But there was more of a sense of hope this year. The past yearsseemed futile."

Many observers agree that the body politic, men and women alike, seems more energized this year than in the past. Voter registration totals are up in Maryland, and elections officials attribute that to the highly contested presidential race, the surprisingly strong, though now abandoned, Ross Perot campaign and the state referendum on the always heated issue of abortion.

And for women, this year's elections hit particularly close to home, activists say. They point to a range of issues that have motivated them to action, everything from the lingering anger over the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings to both political parties' emphasis on family values. Additionally, the activists say, as women increasingly move in and up in the workplace, their concerns are the concerns of everyone -- the economy, taxes and other issues not labeled "women's issues" in the past.

"After seeing what was done to Anita Hill -- I think that's what set women on fire to say, 'We're not going to take it any longer. We're going to get new leadership,' " said Barbara Green, volunteer coordinator for the Clinton campaign in Baltimore, where women volunteers outnumber men. "That was one of the most devastating things -- the abuse from the senators. Women started saying, 'how dare they?' The men in leadership thought it would be forgotten, but women have not forgotten."

Indeed, several of the record number of women running for Senate this year, Lynn Yeakel of Pennsylvania and Carol Mosely Braun of Illinois in particular, have capitalized on how the confirmation hearing coalesced feelings among many women that two female senators is too few.

In fact, Ms. Yeakel, who is running against Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, one of Ms. Hill's prime antagonists during the Judiciary Committee's questioning, pointedly has used a TV commercial featuring the hearings and asking, "Did this make you as angry as it made me?"

Jan Shankroff, a computer services coordinator at the Kennedy Institute, would answer yes. Not only was she angry over the Judiciary Committee's treatment of Ms. Hill, she also worries about the direction she sees the Supreme Court moving.

"I'm really scared about Bush being elected president again this year. I'm really concerned with the way the Supreme Court has been building," said Ms. Shankroff, who is working on her first campaign this year. "I think Clinton has a real interest in women's issues, a genuine interest. He's pro-choice, and he has a strong wife."

Those who support President Bush, however, see the Republicans as having a genuine interest in women's issues as well. The difference is in how you define "women's issues."

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