Politics R Women

ELLEN GOODMAN

November 10, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston.--A Week before the election, one of the funnier and mouthier young women in my family sent me a copy of a Toys R Us ad. There, in living color, was the candidate of toymakers' dreams: ''Barbie for President.''

This doll of a candidate was dressed for her Inaugural Prom in star-spangled tulle. Though she was born in the 1950s, Barbie still didn't look old enough to pass the constitutional age test. Furthermore, she wasn't running for president, she was posing for president.

The letter that came with this ad asked wryly if this was the change that my generation of women had labored so long and mightily to produce for the next. Barbie all dolled up and ready to rule.

Well, what a difference a week makes. In 1992, it is true, we didn't get a female choice for the presidency. But when all was said and counted, when all the hype was distilled into numbers, this was the year when women could say, ''Politics R Us.''

The ballyhooed Year of the Woman often reminds me of the ''overnight singing sensation'' discovered after 20 years of training. The breakthrough came only after a generation of women moved in a slow and grueling pace through the system.

But now at last, that most visible and retro institution, the United States Congress, is going to look different. In January, the Senate will have six women, including four new members, and some historic firsts.

For the first time, there will be two women from one state: Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein of California. For the first time, there will be an African-American woman: Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois. And if the Capitol renovation goes according to schedule, for the first time there will be a ladies room for senators.

The House, for its part, will have 47 women, including 24 newcomers. They include more black and Hispanic women, and a senior citizen from Florida named Carrie Meek, the daughter of sharecroppers.

Of course, that adds up to a still not-so-grand total. The new improved Senate will be 6 percent female and the House 11 percent. But under the previous snail's pace of progress, the National Women's Political Caucus once figured that we'd achieve parity in 400 years. If this year's stunning rate held -- through some miracle of redistricting and retirement -- we'd get there by the year 2000.

No wonder that one pol-watcher wanted to give this election the headline with a double meaning: Way to Go!

The recipe that made for women's success in '92 has been repeated so often that we can whip it up by heart. The ingredients include that core of women ready and willing to make their next political move. Add a voting population eager for change, a motivating -- of Anita Hill, and a nice fat binder of money contributed by women.

The female class of '92 mixed all this with the right issues: domestic issues, women's issues, family issues. They were overwhelmingly pro-choice. And these ingredients were leavened with opportunity.

The women who were successful did not, by and large, run against incumbents. They won open seats. Indeed, the disappointment of the night was Pennsylvania, where Lynn Yeakel lost a squeaker to Sen. Arlen Specter. But this one real amateur among the women candidates nearly beat a longtime, moderate Republican who outspent her two to one. Not a bad showing for a first run.

While we are counting kudos, this was also a year of the woman voter. Fifty-four percent of the people who came out to vote were female, producing a gender gap right at the polling booth. There was a gender gap for Democrats and especially for Democratic women. In the most striking figure, working women chose Clinton by 51 percent, giving Bush only 31 percent and Perot 18 percent.

Something else happened in 1992. The backlash backfired. The shopworn attempts to divide women along the great home-front battle line -- mommies at work from mommies at home -- failed. The attempt to demonize feminism flopped.

The Republican convention, that week-long barrage aimed at women whose lives have changed, misfired. The attacks on Murphy Brown didn't work. Hillary-bashing didn't work.

And finally, while we're on the subject of Hillary, it must be said that the Year of the Woman was not the Year of the Wife. It was easier for a strong woman to run for office than to be a running mate. We saw many portraits of this lawyer, wife and mother: Hillary the feminist harridan, Hillary the headband, Hillary the family-buster and the cookie-maker.

Now we have a partnership marriage of two professionals heading for the White House. She may not be the president. But she ain't no Barbie doll either.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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