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The Year Of the Woman?

Across the country, a record number of women are seeking statewide and national offices this year. But while political experts began the year with enthusiastic predictions about the appeal of female candidates, their words are starting to ring a

By Heather R. Mcleod

"IF YOU GIVE US A CHANCE, we can perform. After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels." A loud round of applause greeted Ann Richards, then state treasurer of Texas and a rising star in the Democratic party, as she spoke these words at the 1988 Democratic national convention.

Two years later, the applause is over and the chance to perform is for real, as a record number of women seek top elective offices in a political season that has been dubbed the "year of the woman."

But while such optimistic phrases came easy last spring, now that Richards and her fellow office-seekers are heading toward the finish of their campaigns, finding a place in the male-dominated political establishment is proving no easy task.

When women candidates threw their hats into the ring last spring, political experts of all stripes predicted that the prevailing national mood would favor the female stereotype.

At a time when anti-government sentiment was running high throughout the nation, women were described as being "different"--political outsiders who could dramatically change the way politics is conducted.

And in a campaign year expected to revolve heavily around social issues like abortion and the environment, analysts speculated that the public would perceive women as having an added edge. In fact, several male candidates--Richard's opponent for the Texas governorship among them--were uncertain how to approach this new species of rival, and openly expressed discomfort about running against a woman.

But just when it looked like women might finally have an advantage, the game changed.

Now, in light of the Persian Gulf crisis and mounting fears of economic recession, "softer" issues have been put on the back burner, and once again, the "masculine" issues of national security and money are in the forefront.

In addition, deeply rooted gender sterotypes about leadership and a lack of cohesion among women voters are still proving them selves tough adversaries for female candidates. And despite all the media hype about the year of the woman, ultimately it is the voters--not the politicos--will decide if the phrase rings true.

"We're going down to the wire," says Lucy Baruch, a spokesperson for the Center for the American Women in Politics at the Eagleton Instititute at Rutgers University.

Nationally, there are a record 70 women running for Congressional seats this year--among them 24 running for re-election. Among the record 85 women running for statewide office, eight are gubernatorial candidates, with Richards and Dianne Feinstein of California waging serious and costly campaigns in two of the most politically important states.

According to the most recent polls, thegubernatorial races in which women are running inAlaska, California, Kansas, Oregon and Texas arenow too close to call. Women gubernatorialcandidates in Pennsylvania, Wyoming, andNebraska--where Kay Orr is seekingre-election--stand an outside chance of winning.

In Senate races, Patricia Saiki of Hawaii isleading a tight race, but Claudine Schneider inRhode Island and Lynn Martin in Illinois probablywon't make the cut.

In six of those eight states, more than onewoman is on the ballot. In fact, in California,voters could theoreticallty elect an all-femalegovernment if they crossed party lines to vote.

Here in Massachusetts, gubernatorial hopefulEvelyn F. Murphy did not make it through theDemocratic primary, but voters still have thechance to elect Marjorie O. Clapprood to replaceher as lieutenant governor.

Traditionally it has been harder for women toseek administrative offices than legislative ones,says Women's Campaign Fund executive director JaneDanowitz. Thus the record number of women seekingstatewide posts is something of a watershed, shesays.

"If anything is a significant breakthroughthis year it has to be that. Women are now beingseen as executives," Danowitz says.

IN HER REFERENCE to Ginger Rogers,Richards symbolically expressed the biggestdilemma for women political candidates--being asgood as the guys on the dance floor, whileremaining feminine in the process.

They've had to dance this fine line--"backwardsand in high heels"--by proving they are toughenough to lead, without violating socialstereotypes about what it means to be a woman.

One step too far in the wrong direction, and awoman candidate can risk treading on some toes.While male candidates who are outspoken andaggressive are labled "tough," women who areequally tough are often labeled "shrill" or"bitchy."

The woman candidate has to be appropriatelyfeminine, but if her social skills are perceivedas too flirtatious, she's called a seductress orworse.

And heaven forbid a woman should cry or showemotion in public. After U.S. Rep. PatriciaSchroeder (D-Col.) tearily announced herwithdrawal from the 1988 Presidential race, shewas widely criticized for revealing her feelings.Experience has shown that every way these womenturn, they have to keep dancing in line and notmiss a beat.

"Tough and Caring," is how CaliforniaDemocratic gubernatorial candidate DianneFeinstein bills herself in a catchy slogan thatmanages to synthesize the best of male and femalestereotypes.

Feinstein, former mayor of San Fransisco, is"tough" in her support of the death penalty, whileremaining "caring" on more social issues, sayingat times that "California can use a littlemothering." She is strongly pro-choice and isliberal on environmental and education policies.And now she's in a neck-and-neck race for thefinish.

Feinstein is not the only candidate who has attimes played up the so-called "advantages" ofbeing a woman. Others--Murphy and Richards amongthem--have stressed their "different voice," in aneffort to project change and compassion to thevoters.

"Women do have a different voice in politics,"says Danowitz. "They bring different issues to theforefront. In the current climate there has beenenormous potential for women to capitalize ontheir difference--but that in and of itself is notenough."

And in the wake of the Persian Gulf crisis andthe subsequent shift in national attention,women's "advantages" may once again becomedrawbacks.

"A lot of things happend on the way to theballot box," says Marie Morse of the NationalWomen's Political Caucus. "People feel safe with amale politician if they feel they are in any kindof danger."

Another difficulty women have faced this yearhas been the barrage of negative campaigns mountedby their opponents. In the case of Murphy, whopulled out of the Massachusetts race a week beforethe primary, Danowitz argues that the lieutanantgovernor was "a victim of not being able to gonegative."

"When she was attacked she didn't strike backsuccessfully--and that's a problem many womencandidates have," Danowitz."

Richards on the other hand went negative--realnegative--early on in the primary. The stingingrebuttals of her primary opponents' stuck with herin the form of high negative ratings as sheentered the general contest.

Both cases, experts say, highlight differentaspects of the same problem: the fine line womenstill have to walk in defining their campaigngoals.

IN A DAY AND AGE when money is crucialto running a competitive race, women face yetanother obstacle: a lack of access totraditionally male financial networks.

Often a kind of catch-22 has plagued womencandidates, linked to the general perception thatas newcomers, they cannot win. Sinceincumbents--nearly all them men--raise money moreeasily than challengers, women remain stuck in afinancial rut.

And in all likelihood, experts, predict, thisvicious circle will continue until significantlygreater numbers of women win office.

Nationwide, most women candidates are beingdramatically outspent by their male opponents. InTexas, Republican nominee for governor ClaytonWilliams has outspent Richards by about $17million to $11 million. More than $6 million thattotal is from his own personal funds.

In California, where Feinstein has had to relyon over $3 million of husband Richard Blum's moneyto finance her gubernatorial bid, the ratio lookssimilar. looks similar.

But raising money is already easier than itonce was. National fundraising organizationssupporting women candidates, such as Emily's Listand the Women's Campaign Fund, have beenincreasingly able to help women surmount financialdisadvantages.

"In terms of raising money, women now tend todo as well as their male counterparts in similarsituations. But the power of incumbency is stillthe number one barrier to women or any newleadership," says Danowitz. "Their differentvoices aren't enough to break the shackles."

BUT EVEN IF THIS TURNS OUT to be adisappointing "year of the woman" in terms of thenumbers elected, analysts from women's campaigngroups argue that female candidates are definitelyon their way up.

"These women didn't materialize from thin air,"says CAWP Director Ruth Mandel. "Most of them arerunning for higher office after years of workingtheir way up the political ladder.

"We've watched the numbers of women in statelegislatures and local offices grow steadily forthe past two decades. They are today's andtomorrow's candidates for higher office."

In 1988, Morse says, nearly 2000 women soughtlegislative seats, and in she estimates that "wellover 2000" have sought them this year.

Most of these women entered the politicalpipeline through school boards, local offices orappointed positions on state and local boards andcommissions, Morse says. "That's the way werecommend they begin," she explains.

Nonetheless, a glass ceiling continues toA-23. Right: Ann Richards, the Democraticnominee for governor in Texas, gives the thumbs-upsign to her supporters.

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