by Kay Mills
In these anxious times, will women make a difference?
Only if they’re on the ballot.
Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder’s Christmas card said it all: “Not being a ‘femiNewtie,’ I’m not excited about this holiday season. Give the season back, Gingrich!” Schroeder’s decision to retire from the House, where she has served for 24 years, stole some of our excitement as well, leaving a sense of malaise reaching well into this year. While you have to applaud someone who wants to chart a new course for herself, why not a course to the U.S. Senate where a Colorado seat is open?
That’s a selfish thought. Why should Schroeder want to do what few other sensible women and men want to do? The House and Senate are not user-friendly places these days. The voice of the radical religious right grows louder, and there’s little interest in building consensus and attacking social problems in a positive vein. Legislators are leaving in droves — even a senior Republican and committee chair like Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas.
Unless you’re a true-blue Newtie, it’s hard to get excited about tearing down programs that benefit women and children. The Democrats, with few voices vigorous enough to reach us in opposition to the cutbacks and not enough strength when the votes are recorded, are looking a great deal like the Republicans.
So a lot of women ask why they should bother voting. What happened in ’94, when 38.7 % of the electorate elected us the Newtonian Congress that’s doing the demolition job is one answer. “Sixteen million women stayed home in 1994 who voted in the 1992 presidential election,” says Ellen Malcolm, president of EMILY’s List, the Democratic fundraising group started in 1985 for pro-choice women candidates (EMILY as in Early Money Is Like Yeast, the leavening that lets women candidates rise to the top).
What do we have to look forward to in ’96? Not another “year of the woman” like ’92 when women ran for 22 percent of the open seats and, yes, it really did make a difference (see “The Lessons of ’92,” page 23). The number of women running for open seats is more like ’94 — fourteen percent, perhaps even less. And while women have maintained the 47 seats they hold in Congress, a record also achieved for the first time in ’92, the politics of the women sitting in those seats is shifting. In 1994, five seats went to conservative Republican women such as Helen Chenowith of Idaho, Enid Greene Waldholtz of Utah and Linda Ann Smith, while more progressive Democrats such as Jolene Unsoeld of Washington, Karen Shepherd of Utah, Lynn Schenk of California, and Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky of Pennsylvania were defeated.
The picture for women in state legislatures — an area of increasing interest as block grants move much of the action from Congress to the statehouses — isn’t much better. There, too, women are just holding their own. While five times as many women now serve in legislatures as did in 1969, no gains have been registered since 1993. Women now hold 1,532 (20.6 percent) of the 7,424 state legislative seats in the country. It’s not just that candidates who run for Congress often serve their apprenticeship in the state legislature, so no gain there can be pain on up the line. There’s a need right now for organized aggressive state legislators as the states set their priorities for block grants.
Finding progressive women candidates who can grab the attention of voters is the first challenge. EMILY’s List and the much smaller pro-choice Republican WISH List (Women In the Senate and House) are gearing up at the national level. So is the bipartisan Women’s Campaign Fund, which devotes one-third of its money to state and local races. For some new faces to watch, see Ten New Women to Watch in ’96.
EMILY’s List, which Malcolm says raised $8.2 million for pro-choice women Democrats in ’94 has as its ’96 goal “to boot Newt” and has expanded its mission to include training campaign managers, fund-raisers, and press secretaries for women candidates. Changing 18 seats in the House would do that, says Malcolm. Is this a realistic goal? Democratic activists, of course, say yes because many Republican freshmen represent longtime Democratic districts and their policies have been so harsh. Veteran political reporters are skeptical, however, because of the unpredictability of the electorate and because far more House Democrats (24 so far) than Republicans (10) have announced retirement. No one can predict how voters will react to the long budget wrangle or how a heavier turnout in a Presidential year will affect House elections. Tanya Melich, a Republican whose new book The Republican War Against Women (Bantam), focuses on presidential politics, believes there could be a switch if the Democrats show the capacity to do the kind of grassroots organizing the Republican Congressional Committee has been able to do so well — but she hasn’t seen much evidence of that. Besides, she says, even Republicans who may not always agree with their Congressional leader like being in the majority for a change and will work hard to keep the party in power.
Malcolm plans to expand on the model EMILY’s List developed in ’94 with the California Democratic Party to target 900,000 California women who had voted for Clinton but were expected to stay home for that off-year race. According to Malcolm, 416,000 did vote in ’94, helping to produce one of the few major Democratic victories that election saw: Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s defeat of Republican Michael Huffington by 165,000 votes./pMeanwhile, on the Republican side, the WISH List has set $1.5 million as its goal — in 1994, the group contributed $370,000 to 40 candidates, and, among others, backed Olympia Snowe in her winning Senate bid. “We need to focus on primaries,” says WISH president Patricia Goldman, who admits her candidates too often lose to well-heeled, often militantly anti-choice opponents with official Republican party backing. Whether these pro-choice candidates can make a dent under these circumstances depends in part on whether they receive the technical and financial support they need, says Goldman.
The one bright side — both Republican and Democratic pollsters agree — is that the issues voters are concerned about are the kind they tend to trust women candidates to handle well. “Voters are not as angry as they were in 1994, but they are more anxious now,” Republican political consultant John Deardourff told a San Diego meeting of women in state legislatures sponsored by the Center for American Woman and Politics last fall. He believes voters think the message of the Republican Congress is right but the plan it has come up with is wrong. They are worried about holding on to their jobs and disturbed that they haven’t gotten the changes they thought they were voting for in both 1992 and 1994. He thinks voters will be confronted by the “choice of the least worst” candidate.
“If there is going to be a change in this mood, the one group in which people have confidence is women,” Deardourff continued, adding that his numbers show a close match between what people want from their leaders and what women candidates are supposed to offer.
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake agrees. Her polling has sought to identify what voice women can have. She has found three areas where women are concerned and where female candidates could show leadership: the economy, values, and change. “Voters think in kitchen-table terms,” her data show. They are annoyed with candidates who don’t know what a price scanner is (as President Bush discovered in ’92) or what gas costs. “They want people they think they could meet in the grocery store.” People — and especially non-college women who didn’t vote in ’94 — want politicians to address real-life issues that would improve their prospects. “If the Democrats are viewed as maintaining the status quo,” Lake says, “people won’t hear their message at all.”
Campaigning on these kinds of issues may not be as dramatic as announcing that you believe Anita Hill — which galvanized voters in ’92 — but feminists should insist that the candidates they support talk in terms that reach a wide range of women in these economically anxious times. And they need to push likely women to run. “There are very few highs for women in politics right now,” says Betsey Wright, executive vice president of the Wexler Group, a government relations firm. Wright, who headed a national program that trained women candidates and campaign managers in the ’70s, says that women’s political organizations find themselves asking, “Do we dare talk our friends into running for office?”
“I say, ‘Get over it!'” and get on with the business of electing progressive women, Wright declares. “You’ve got to be proactive,” says Harriett Woods, former Missouri lieutenant governor and two-time Senate candidate. “Conservative women were motivated to run,” she says of ’94. “They had a cause.”
Think of it this way: ’94 was a wake-up call. Who gets elected in ’96 will determine whether the last two years were an acceleration of a permanent shift in how government works or a temporary blip on the radar screen.
Kay Mills, a California journalist, is author of From Pocahontas to Power Suits: Everything You Need to Know About Women’s History in America (Plume) and This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (NAL/Dutton).