By Karen Tumulty, Published: March 24
At a moment when gender politics is thick in the air, it is a good time to reconsider another spring, exactly 20 years ago, when an unprecedented wave of women set their sights on Washington.
That was the election that was supposed to change everything. But it didn’t — not on the scale once expected.
Nor did a series of “firsts” since then: a woman as speaker of the U.S. House, another on the Republican presidential ticket, still another winning nearly 18 million votes for president.
In fact, a growing body of evidence suggests that these pathbreaking women have proved to be cautionary examples — not role models — for others who might consider running for office.
Overall, the number of women elected, while rising through much of the 1990s, has hit a plateau. That is why advocates of all political stripes are redoubling their efforts to elect more women this fall.
Jean Lloyd-Jones, then a state senator from Iowa, was one of those who declared in 1992 that her voice was needed on Capitol Hill.
“I decided to run because of the Clarence Thomas hearings,” Lloyd-Jones recalled. Her own Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R) had voted in favor of the Supreme Court nominee, saying he had not believed claims of sexual harassment by University of Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill.
When Lloyd-Jones won the Democratic nomination for Senate that June, she was helping write the narrative of what would become known as “The Year of the Woman.”
Many now lament that it was not much more than that — one anomalous year.
Lloyd-Jones fell short, but more than two dozen others didn’t.
Overnight, the number of women in the Senate doubled, and female membership in the House went from 28 to 47. They made their presence felt beyond Capitol Hill, with the passage of legislation that made the workplace more family-friendly, that directed more medical research to women’s health issues and that made the criminal justice system more responsive to domestic violence.
“I really felt that we were paving the way for a huge number of women, but the promise of 1992 was never realized,” said Lloyd-Jones, now 82, who spoke at a ceremony commemorating that campaign year on Monday at American University.
“In 1992, there was such a surge. It was like, hey, that glass ceiling is being shattered,” agreed former congresswoman Constance A. Morella (R-Md.). “I was very excited about it, and then in 1994 [when Republicans took control of Congress, wiping out much of the Class of ’92], you had a slight change. And then it was level.”
Morella was one of three women in Maryland’s House delegation in 1992; there is now one. Virginia — which has elected just three women to Congress in its history — has none.
Morella blames political polarization, which she said has made both parties less hospitable for the moderate brand of politics that she and many other women of her era represented. And pro-choice women such as herself, once the norm among Republican women in federal office, are finding it far more difficult to compete in GOP primary races.
More recent years have also seen expectations for women to rise, only to be dashed.
Hillary Rodham Clinton had said that her 2008 campaign would make it “unremarkable to think that a woman can be president of the United States.” Sarah Palin boasted that her elevation to the presidential ticket later that year proved “we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all.”
It now appears the opposite may have happened: Women — particularly the accomplished and successful ones who would make the most appealing candidates — have been struck not by the opportunity but by the toll that politics can take.
“Both Clinton and Palin’s campaigns also provided many potential candidates with a window into how women are treated when they run for office. And what women of both political parties saw likely confirmed some of their worst fears about the electoral arena,” wrote professors Jennifer L. Lawless of American University and Richard L. Fox of Loyola Marymount University. In January, they published a study on the under-representation of women in U.S. politics, where they analyzed the different attitudes of men and women toward the endeavor.
Potential female candidates have seen others have a tough go since then. During the 2010 midterm elections, then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was vilified in $65 million worth of Republican ads, 161,203 spots in all, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group. The speaker was portrayed as, among other things, a cackling witch.
Pelosi insisted that the barrage — the most intense felt by any speaker since Newt Gingrich — was a tribute to her effectiveness in passing the Democrats’ agenda, including the health-care law that is the signature achievement of Barack Obama’s presidency.
In the current presidential campaign, Newsweek’s cover featured a close-up photo of Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) that made her appear unhinged. Although those in the Republican presidential field have taken plenty of out-of-the-mainstream positions on issues (moon colonies?), the only woman in the race was asked on Fox News Sunday: “Are you a flake?”
Bachmann’s allies bristled at what they say was dismissive treatment and an intense focus on her appearance.
“There aren’t enough women who want to put themselves through the grinder of the political process,” said Brett O’Donnell, who was one of Bachmann’s top advisers. “We’ve got to stop everything about whether a candidate has cankles, and how she does her nails, and does she wear her hair up or down.”
Prospects for change?
After the 2010 midterm contests, the number of women in the U.S. House dropped for the first time in more than 30 years, albeit by one seat. There are now 73 voting members of the House who are women.
A record 17 women — 12 Democrats, five Republicans — now serve in the Senate, a number that has held steady since 2009. But with two of the senior Republicans retiring this year, and likely to be replaced by men, it is not certain whether there will be that many in the chamber come January.
At a mere 16.8 percent of House membership, women’s representation in the United States’ national legislature last year ranked 78th in the world, tied with Turkmenistan, according to statistics compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
Are there prospects for change? Optimists note that some of the same forces that propelled women into politics two decades ago are once again at work this year.
As Hill’s treatment by the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee galvanized women then, some activists are hoping there is a similar potential in the current controversies around gender issues — including the subject of contraception, something that younger voters might have thought had been settled by their mothers’ and their grandmothers’ generations.
Democrats have declared that Republicans are waging a “war on women.” And with commentators such as Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher under fire for the language they have used about women, left and right are twisting themselves into knots to make the case that the other side’s partisans are more boorish than their own.
Meanwhile, there are also practical considerations working to encourage women to run for office. The combination of once-a-decade redistricting and the generally unsettled state of the electorate are potentially opening up opportunities for newcomers.
A number of feminist organizations, including one that calls itself the 2012 Project, have stepped up their efforts to recruit and train women to run for office. Spearheaded by Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics, the project is working with more than 100 organizations across the country and across party lines to increase the number of women in Congress and state legislatures.
There are similar campaigns underway in many individual states. With a former state Senate colleague who is a Republican, Iowa’s Lloyd-Jones has founded an organization, called 50-50 in 2020, that seeks to see as many Iowa women as men serving in public office by the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage.
That’s a tall order, considering that Iowa has never sent a woman to Congress, or elected a female governor. (The only other state to share that distinction is Mississippi; four states have never elected a woman to U.S. House or Senate.)
But all these efforts may be paying off.
While the filing deadlines in many states have not yet passed, there appear to be record or near-record numbers of women making or considering a bid for governor or Congress, according to the Rutgers center.
But it also appears that one long-standing trend is holding up and down the ballot: Far fewer Republican women than Democratic women are running.
In conservative Idaho, whose filing deadline was this month, nearly four in 10 of the Democratic candidates for the state legislature are women, while only 13 percent of the Republican candidates are, said Gary Moncrief, a political science professor at Boise State University.
“In other words, a Democratic candidate is three times more likely to be a woman than is a Republican candidate,” he said. “In Idaho, it isn’t a gender gap; it’s a gender chasm.”
That frustrates many Republicans, given the crossover appeal that their female candidates have shown in general election contests. In 2010, for instance, all four of the women who won governor’s races were Republicans.
They included two women of color: New Mexico’s Susana Martinez, a Latina; and Indian American Nikki Haley in South Carolina. Both are being mentioned as possible running mates for the GOP presidential nominee.
Political scientists and feminist activists are in wide agreement as to what is, and what isn’t, behind the relatively small number of women in elected office.
It’s no longer a question of biased attitudes or entrenched resistance — at least, not on the part of voters or the political establishment.
“Study after study finds that, when women run for office, they perform just as well as their male counterparts. No differences emerge in women and men’s fundraising receipts, vote totals, or electoral success,” wrote Lawless and Fox.
What is different, these and other researchers have found, is the attitude that women have about making a career of politics.
It has long been true that women tend to start their political careers at a later age, often after their kids are grown; that they usually do not consider running unless they are asked, which is less likely to happen to women than men; and that they are more likely to be drawn in by working on local issues — fixing their schools, even getting a four-way stop sign on their streets — than by long-standing ambition, said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics.
Lawless and Fox surveyed nearly 4,000 plausible male and female candidates — lawyers, educators, activists and the like. They found that women are more likely than men to believe that the electorate is biased against female candidates and that they are less confident in their own qualifications to run. While 35 percent of the men they surveyed pronounced themselves “very qualified” for office, only 22 percent of the similarly situated women did. Also telling: Of those who considered themselves completely unqualified, 55 percent of the men reported that they had, nonetheless, given the idea of running some thought; only 39 percent of women had.
Political scientists also note that there are far fewer women than once expected in the pipeline to higher office. Term limits in state legislatures, for instance, were once thought to be a boon to women, because they would weaken the power of incumbency.
Instead, because the gains for women have been so slow, the opposite has happened. A number of studies show more women have been forced to leave office than have been elected because of term-limit laws.
A political boot camp
About 150 women, most of them running for or thinking about running for offices from school board to Congress, gathered this month on the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick, N.J., for what the Center for American Women and Politics calls its “Ready to Run” program.
It amounted to a political boot camp, where they got advice on everything from how to build a fundraising network to posture and makeup tips for television interviews.
They were told that they needed to get their message down to three or four key points. They were coached that — as distasteful as they might find it — going negative against their opponent is usually necessary, especially for those who are trying to take out an incumbent.
Lawless and Fox’s research is only the latest to suggest that women are more likely to be deterred from running by its more disagreeable aspects: having to ask people for money and knock on their doors, the loss of privacy for themselves and their families, and, particularly, the potential of having to mount an attack strategy.
Female candidates’ platforms also have to be far broader than the “women’s issues” that brought many of their predecessors into politics.
In this environment, “I don’t care what you’re running for right now — dogcatcher, mayor, city council, whatever — you need to have an economic plan,” Democratic pollster Celinda Lake told the gathering at Rutgers.
While women have not reached anything close to parity in elected office, they are no longer the rarities they once were either. They will not be given the benefits of the enormous doubts that the electorate now has about the entire political system.
“Voters no longer grant women automatically the mantle of change,” Lake warned them. “They are beginning to believe women can be as much a part of the problem as men, so you need to grab the mantle of change.”
All of those things were good advice for anyone running, but it was clear that these candidates are facing some questions their male counterparts haven’t.
One woman running for school board in New York wanted to know how she should respond when voters ask who would be taking care of her small children if she is elected.
As she put it: “I know what they are getting at when they say, ‘Why are you here?’ ”
Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.