Fighting Back


ROSEMARIE SANSOME was as prepared as any candidate descending on Springfield last May for the state Democratic convention. For her underdog bid to wrest the body's nonbinding endorsement for Secretary of State from incumbent Michael J. Connally, she enlisted a cadre of children to pass out yellow roses and an unusually heavy load of signs, bumper stickers and buttons. They even placed a large scoreboard in the galleries to keep delegates posted on the progress of the Celtics playoff game. Though Sansone's was an uphill fight, the small, red-haired Boston city councilor realized that even a spunky effort in defeat could help her campaign for the official nomination in the September primary.

So Saturday afternoon Sansone diligently worked the floor--greeting, chatting and pleading with delegates--as the convention dealt with the race for lieutenant governor. The eventual victor of that seven-way, five-ballot, seven-hour battle was Evelyn Murphy, a former state secretary of environmental affairs. But ironically, Murphy's triumph helped seal her fellow female's fate at the convention. The reason in part for Sansone's drubbing, according to state political pundits: the convention wasn't yet comfortable endorsing two women for the same ticket.

The endorsement of even one woman for high state office suggests the great progress of the politically weaker sex, both in the Commonwealth and the nation. Until the 1970s, the few female politicians who sought office often ran only as legacies for spouses who were constitutionally ineligible to succeed themselves, or newly dead. But more and more women are running in their own right, and millions more are participating in other ways.

Such activity has jumped significantly for the 1982 elections. Not only are more female candidates running at all levels than ever before, but women on the whole are becoming politically independent. For the first time in recent history, a "gender gap" has emerged between male and female perceptions of current national leaders; polls show as much as 12 percent fewer women than men support the Reagan Administration.

The catalyst seems to have been a significant setback in the push for equal rights under the law. The Equal Rights Amendment died in June, the victim of a handful of intransigent legislators ignoring overwhelming popular support.


President Reagan and his conservative congressional colleagues have opposed the amendment, have sought to restrict abortion, and have supported budget cuts in programs to aid rape and domestic assault victims, child-care centers and child welfare recipients. It's become obvious that if women want their fair share, they themselves will have to enter the political process.

TACTICALLY, THE WOMEN'S electoral movement is changing, too, Strategists used to maximize the number of female officeholders, regardless of their stands. But that tokenism increasingly seemed counter-productive, so women's leaders are now scrutinizing potential candidates more for their ideas than their gender.

In particular, they're fighting tokenism harder than ever. There's no other way to explain the appointment of Sandra D. O'Connor to the Supreme Court, for she was not only the high court's first woman justice, but also the first to be taken directly from judicial ranks as low as a state appellate court. Many women's leaders have protested O'Connor's passive stances on women's rights. Another example: Michigan Republicans and Democrats last month engaged in one-upmanship in assembling their tickets for the November elections. Seeking women's votes, the GOP gubernatorial nominee asked three women before finally finding one to run on his ticket for secretary of state. The next week, word got out that the head of the Democratic ticket was explicitly looking for a woman running mate. He finally summoned 70-year-old congresswoman emeritus Martha W. Griffiths out of retirement to run for lieutenant governor.

Tokenism is, of course, unfair to qualified men, who risk getting trampled underfoot in the headlong rush to place women--any women--in high positions. It also denigrates women and tends to limit the number of real women powerholders, the Sansone candidacy being a case in point. It also keeps women out of major positions which carry more than symbolic import. State parties are quite willing to nominate women for lower, largely figurehead posts, but there are currently no women governors. Only two gubernatorial candidates nationwide today are female.

Leaders of the movement now aren't pushing for instant equality of numbers of representatives. Despite the surge in political activity, there probably won't be many more women in the 98th Congress than the 19 representatives and two senators in the sitting 97th. That's because very few politicians start at the national level and the qualified female candidates are still seeking state and local posts. So in the past eight years, the number of women in state legislatures has tripled, from 4 percent to 12 percent. In time, that increase should ripple thought higher circles of power.

To their credit, few women's organizations have offered blanket pledges to support any and every woman candidate. "We are not interested in replacing mediocre men with mediocre women," says Kathy Wilson, head of the National Women's Political Caucus. She reports that her organization, the largest women's political group in the country, has been quite selective in endorsing female candidates. It has made support for the Equal Rights Amendment and the 1973 Supreme Court ruling maintaining the right to an abortion its two minimal conditions for endorsement; activists have opposed many women candidates. The caucus is currently supporting Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) in his fight against Rep. Margaret Heckler (R-Mass.), the founder and co-chair of the Congresswomen's Caucus, because Heckler opposes abortion.

That women in politics are no longer a monolith is perhaps the healthiest sign of progress. That women actually take both sides of so-called women's issues, that they are successfully infiltrating both parties (all five women entering Congress in 1980 were in fact Republicans) indicates that they are shedding their image as a cohesive interest group. Increasingly, they appear normal politicians, not single-issue lubbyists.