For women, change is the specialty of the house

ALICE STEINBACH

November 15, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

You've heard it a lot over the years: The theory that women, once elected to office, will wield political power in a way quite different from men.

It's a popular concept, one based on the idea that women in political positions would replace the "male values" of competitiveness and power lust with their own nurturing "feminine values" of constructive compromise, sensitivity to relationships and a stronger ethic of honesty.

In fact, this notion of women as kinder and gentler politicians is more than popular; it's one of the pillars of feminism.

And from 1970, when Gloria Steinem laid it all out in an essay titled "What It Would Be Like If Women Win" to the 1992 Life magazine article predicting what would happen "If Women Ran America," the idealistic vision of women in political power has not changed.

The world, so this vision goes, will be a better place for all of us when women get their piece of the political pie.

Many reasons are put forth as to why women might affect such positive changes if given political power.

But it is historian Doris Kearns Goodwin who sums up most clearly what lies behind the belief that women politicians will act in a more altruistic way than male politicians. "The special heritage of values and priorities that have been traditionally associated with women as wives and mothers," she writes, "can be seen as sources of strength to create an enlarged vision of society."

It is tempting, of course, to accept at face value such conventional wisdom about women in politics. Particularly if you're a woman, a wife and a mother.

It is tempting, but as many women -- particularly those who are wives and mothers -- can tell you, it is probably unwise.

The reality is: Just as all male politicians are not power-mad egomaniacs, all female politicians are probably not going to embrace the kinder, gentler approach to governing.

Which brings us to the Year of the Woman.

It was a pretty good year for women, politically speaking: Eighteen new female members were elected to the House, raising the number of women from 29 to 47, and four new women were added to the Senate, bumping up the total number to six.

And while women still have a long way to go -- what else is new? -- such an increase in the number of women in politics seems likely to give us a better look at their approach to power, to personal ambition, to ethics and, very importantly, to their effectiveness.

An observation: Although the number of women becoming lawyers has increased from 300 percent to 400 percent over the last 20 years, it strikes me that we are no less a litigious society now than we were two decades ago. Which may or may not

bode well for the infusion of women into politics.

Still, there is something in the political air right now that favors women very much: the idea of change. Bill Clinton began and ended his campaign with a call for change -- and it won the election for him.

And although there may be those who think of change as a striking new concept, women are not among them. If there's one thing that all women know something about, it's change.

Women are used to juggling a dozen balls in the air. Most men don't know how to do that. Not because they can't, but because they seldom have to.

Women are used to living with the discontinuity inherent in the life of the mother-wife-worker. They know what it is like continually to have to refocus their energies during the course of any given day.

Women are used to reinventing themselves, to changing lives in midstream. And they know that while such change is frightening -- just ask any so-called "displaced homemaker" about this -- it is also exciting.

Women are used to the idea of remaining flexible. They are used to compromise and the need to stretch resources so that no one under their care feels the sting of being passed over.

Women are used to listening. Men know how to ask questions, but often they don't know how to listen. And listening -- in the political sense -- may be needed now more than ever.

And from all of the above, women are used to developing a way of thinking that is less rigid and more responsive to the flow of the moment.

Whether all this translates into making women more responsible and ethical politicians than men, I don't know.

What I do know is: I can't wait to see what happens.

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