Politics and gender

October 26, 1999|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- When Pat Schroeder first ran for Congress, a pack of skeptical voters and reporters repeatedly asked her the same question: "Are you running as a woman?" Eventually, the frustrated Colorado Democrat came up with a rejoinder: "Do I have any choice?"

Fast-forward now to Republican Elizabeth Dole's campaign for president, may it rest in peace. Her quest for the Oval Office was dogged by comments about symbol and substance. Once the woman routinely described as "the first credible female candidate" bowed out, the focus changed -- from whether she was running "as a woman" to whether she lost "as a woman."

The broadcasts and newspaper stories all described the dropout as "the only woman in the race." Even the sign in her own headquarters went from "Let's Make History" to "She Made History."

Coming up short

Anatomy was not entirely Ms. Dole's dropout destiny. She didn't quit because of DNA but because of dollars. In her own words, "the bottom line remains money" -- the gender-neutral dollar.

But there is something to learn from the abortive attempt of this woman to break the highest glass ceiling. As long as there is only one woman in the pack, one skirt among the suits, she is always and forever going to be running "as a woman."

Ms. Dole came out of the 1996 Republican National Convention with all the buzz. It wasn't just chivalrous or patronizing Republicans who wished the candidate's wife was the candidate.

On her own this year, Ms. Dole struggled to run as both the first woman and one of the guys. She never failed to mention the "historic" aspect of her campaign and she never failed to mention that she was not strictly a women's candidate.

Nevertheless, the spotlight kept shining on her gender. This is not, and was not, all bad. Ms. Dole stood out from the crowd and attracted crowds. At her last news conference, she talked about seeing "some women sit up a little straighter because you're trying to empower them." In fact, parents would bring their daughters to see "a woman." And she closed the gender gap among donors: A record half of her contributors were female.

But children don't vote, Ms. Dole's equal opportunity fund raising fell short and, quite frankly, more voters seemed interested in her as a celebrity than as a candidate. In the end, she couldn't capitalize or crusade on being the "first woman." And she couldn't help being seen as the "first woman."

In one of those vicious circles of politics, the woman who started out as a strong contender, No. 2 in the polls, wasn't taken seriously enough.

In politics, the saying goes, early money is like yeast. But this year, early Republican money is more like bubbles popping the cork in George II's champagne bottle. Marie Wilson of The White House Project, which is promoting women presidential candidates, says the big players "didn't gather around this woman and say, you're the person we want to win with."

The gender spotlight cast some glare and some shadows. Ms. Dole was comparatively moderate on gun control and on a (barely) softened abortion stand. The former president of the Red Cross was surely the real "compassionate conservative." But the coverage was typically sparse or peculiarly personal. We found out more about her wardrobe -- matching shoes and suits -- and her personality -- rigid -- than her education plan.

Ms. Wilson once conducted research on what Americans want in the first female president and ended up wringing her hands. She remembers asking herself: "How will a woman ever do this? She has to be too perfect." Ironically, one of the criticisms routinely launched against Ms. Dole was her perfectionism.

The lawyer, Cabinet secretary, candidate's wife and contender may yet be chosen for the No. 2 spot. But it's a safe bet that the first woman who gets to the White House will be running with and against some other women.

It's only when many women run that we'll stop thinking about "a woman" and start seeing candidates as different as, say, Reps. Helen Chenoweth of Idaho and Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas.

In the year 2000, once again, we have an all-male field running for president. If I may echo Pat Schroeder, "Do we have a choice?"

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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