Not the year of the woman

November 24, 1998|By Gail Collins

IN THE history of women in politics, November may go down as the month Rep. Deborah Pryce, an Ohio Republican, was re-elected secretary of the Republican House leadership conference. Ms. Pryce won by a unanimous vote, possibly nailing down the secretary job for years to come.

The post-election theme for women in politics is stasis. The number of female senators is frozen at nine and governors at three.

In the House, which added a couple of new women, Republicans elected Ms. Pryce and Rep. Tillie Fowler of Florida to the same bottom two spots women held last term. Rep. Jennifer Dunn of Washington took a shot at majority leader but came in third. Ms. Fowler, a positive thinker, feels this should still be regarded as progress: "She's paving the way. No woman had ever run before."

No laughing matter

Barbara Sinclair, a professor of political science at the University of California at Los Angeles, put the matter rather more directly. At least a woman ran for a power post and "people aren't laughing at her."

Some people believed Ms. Dunn's quest for the majority leader's post was doomed because she supports abortion rights.

The choice issue has been a stumbling block for Republican women who get near the top of the food chain, where the anti-abortion lobby has considerable veto powers. Others, including Ms. Fowler, say Ms. Dunn lost because she got in the race late.

But Ms. Dunn also had a lot of detractors who have not been reading up on the theory of gender parity in politics. Some of them claimed she was unsubstantial -- good at glossing over differences and honey-coating political unpleasantness, but unwilling to make hard choices.

The downside of Ms. Dunn has to be taken in context. This is a race in which the person who won was Rep. Dick Armey of Texas, one of the participants in a plot to oust Speaker Newt Gingrich a while back that failed after Mr. Armey got cold feet and ratted out his fellow plotters.

After he won a rather grueling re-election to the No. 2 job in the House last week, Mr. Armey described the fight as a "race of enthusiasm and energy and commitment to principles to which we all have a good subscription."

His powers of speech had clearly been weakened by the strain of trying to look like a gracious winner.

Ms. Dunn's remarks were very brief -- just a few sentences. But she managed to fit in the word "great" three times, as well as a "wonderful" and a "delighted." On the other hand, the guy who came in second, Rep. Steve Largent of Oklahoma, sounded positively sullen. Although his statement was even briefer than Ms. Dunn's, Mr. Largent did take time to refer to his former career as a football player. There are days when it seems as if the House of Representatives has more jocks than the Dallas Cowboys' locker room.

Man vs. woman

The point here is not that the world is a darker place today because Jennifer Dunn is not in the House leadership, but that when a woman and a man compete for what has always been seen as a man's job, the flaws in the woman's character seem more noticeable and disturbing. They tend to be new flaws, and people who had gotten used to being led by a right-wing bully, who can't be relied on in a pinch, got very nervous at the idea of replacing him with a mealy-mouthed woman who spins too much.

The Democratic minority, meanwhile, has elected an all-male team. Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut lost a fight for the third-ranking post of conference chair to Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, who turned out to be the first Jewish member elected to the party's House leadership.

That raised the dispiriting possibility that the Democrats were still involved in carrying out their inclusionary agenda for 1958. But the underlying dynamic was actually pretty simple. A woman who is known for her speeches on bills before the House was competing against the man who led the fund-raising effort for Democrats running for re-election. She lost. This is not chauvinism. This is life as we know it.

Gail Collins is a New York Times editorial writer.

Pub Date: 11/24/98

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