• U.S.

What Do Women Have to Celebrate?

9 minute read
Barbara Ehrenreich

Maybe plumbing, not biology, is destiny. More than 70 years after women won the vote, the U.S. Senate chamber still has no women’s bathroom. Even the Democratic cloakroom in the House has no ladies’ room, leaving female Representatives with a hike to the Congressional Women’s Reading Room, where there are all of three toilets. Future archaeologists, studying the pipes and bathroom fixtures of Capitol Hill, may conclude that late-20th century America was a fortress of patriarchy on a par with Saudi Arabia.

They would have it wrong, of course. Measured in terms of the number of feminist organizations, journals, support groups and T shirts per capita, the U.S. is the world headquarters of the international feminist conspiracy. The paradox is that all this grass-roots energy and commitment has never translated into hard political power: in 1992, the Year of the Woman, 3% of the Senate and 6% of the House of Representatives is female, proportions that lag embarrassingly behind most European nations.

Which is why the fuss over the Year of the Woman has always sounded a little menacing — a way of saying “This is your chance, gals. Now or never.”

But 1992 will deserve a place in “herstory” as the year women stormed the Hill. One hundred and seventeen women ran for seats in the House and Senate, far ahead of the previous record — 77 in 1990. In another first, 21 of the female challengers were women of color, up from 14 in 1990.

The Year of the Woman must have come as a surprise to the many who have written feminism’s obituary over the years. In the 1980s feminism was supposed to have been supplanted by mild-mannered, skirt-suited “postfeminists” who wanted nothing more than a reliable baby-sitter and a chance to bang their head against the corporate glass ceiling.

But sometime in the past 12 months, a generation of women woke up to the possibility that what they had taken for granted could also be taken away. As the Supreme Court began to nibble at Roe v. Wade, “choice” took on the moral urgency that in another generation had been reserved for Vietnam. And then came “Hill-Thomas.” The visual that lingers shows 14 white men confronting a species of human being that they would normally encounter only in the form of a hotel maid. Little clicks of raised consciousness could be heard throughout the land as women plotted to integrate the Senate Judiciary Committee.

So it was goodbye, postfeminism; hello, third wave. (The first wave was the suffrage movement, and the second wave began in the 1960s and ’70s.) The other side of the neatly tailored women running for office was a far larger number of women running in the streets. In New York City feminists formed the Women’s Action Coalition, a militant, direct-action group modeled on the boisterous gay group ACT UP. During the Democratic Convention, while the female candidates preened and paraded inside, thousands of women activists faced down pro-life demonstrators at abortion clinics, rallied against violence against women and published the sassy, hot-pink Getting It Gazette.

And there were achievements, as well as adrenaline, to build on. Almost all the women candidates, including Patty (“just a mom in tennis shoes”) Murray from Washington State, had already served in a state legislature. What they needed for the big leap was money, and this had been quietly building through the ’80s, as a generation of female fast-trackers made partner, moved into corner offices and began to write their own checks. After Hill-Thomas, they couldn’t seem to write them fast enough. The bipartisan National Women’s Political Caucus raised $61,000 from a single newspaper ad featuring a fantasy scene of Clarence Thomas being grilled by a panel of female Senators. Emily’s List, the pro-choice Democratic women’s donor network, saw its contributions quadruple to an estimated $6 million, making it the largest donor to congressional campaigns in the country.

Still, it might not have been the Year of the Woman if it wasn’t also the Year of the Vanishing Man. After a series of scandals left Congress looking like a holding pen for unindicted criminals, the men began to flee as fast as they could get their resumes updated: 53 Representatives retired or just declined to run again. Others, like New York’s Stephen Solarz, found the ground shifting beneath their feet as redistricting removed their old constituencies. One way or another, an empty space opened up, and that great sucking sound, as Ross Perot might have put it, was women rushing in to fill the vacuum.

Well, not every kind of woman. “It’s the year of the feminist woman,” antifeminist Phyllis Schlafly observes tartly. Or at least of the liberal Democratic woman, which is why George Bush was heard to mutter, during the second debate, “I hope a lot of them lose.” Of the 11 women who ran for the Senate, 10 were Democrats, as were 70 of the 106 candidates for Congress.

But where else was a candidate to go with her tote bag full of women’s issues if not to the Democratic Party? The Republican Party has “family values,” meaning opposition to abortion and gay rights. The Democratic Party has “family issues,” meaning things like health care, education and family leave. It probably helps that Clinton and Gore represent the first generation of presidential candidates to have shared their law school classes with women or their homes with actual feminists. This puts them in a different geological era from Bush, who, when questioned about appointing women to office, mentioned the woman in his Administration who’s responsible for doling out souvenir tie clips, or Perot, who cited his wife and “four beautiful daughters.”

And in 1992, the year of anti-incumbent fever, female candidates had an appeal that went beyond gender loyalty. Where women voters read “role model,” males read “outsider.” There was a general expectation that women would be more ethical, less taken by perks and pomp and more likely to view things from the supermarket-counter level. This, in fact, had been the suffragists’ dream: that women would use their innate “mother sense” to bring sweetness and light to the smoke-filled back rooms.

For one brief, defining moment in the middle of the summer, the politics of the nation seemed to have become the politics of gender. On the Republican side, there was a platform borrowed from The Handmaid’s Tale and Marilyn Quayle to represent the vanishing female option of career wife. Quayle made it clear just how much was at stake when she dragged in the draft and the sexual | revolution. This was all-out culture war, baby boom-style: feminism vs. antifeminism, repression vs. permission, mixing things up vs. shoring up the walls. Armageddon with a female cast.

Strangely, after all the buildup, the moment didn’t last. By September it began to look as though the Year of the Woman would be only eight months long. With national attention focused on the presidential candidates, politics resumed the ancient rhythms of the horse race and the cockfight. Women’s issues, such as domestic violence, never came up in the presidential campaign, and when abortion did intrude into the vice-presidential debate, Admiral Stockdale undercut his own pro-choice statement with a grumpy plea to “get on past this and talk about something substantive.”

Meanwhile, women’s campaigns began to sputter. Despite the success of feminist fund raisers, most women still occupy an economic class where a $100- a-plate luncheon counts as a new blazer or a dental visit forgone. In Kansas, Democratic challenger Gloria O’Dell raised barely $100,000 compared with incumbent Bob Dole’s $2 million. California’s Barbara Boxer and Pennsylvania’s Lynn Yeakel found themselves too broke to counter their opponents’ attack ads until late in the campaign.

Then there was the realization that women do not necessarily inhabit a loftier moral plane than the men they intend to dislodge. Illinois’ Carol Moseley Braun got hit with Medicaid-fraud charges for failing to report a windfall that might have helped pay her mother’s nursing-home bill. Yeakel was revealed to have paid $17,000 in back taxes on the eve of announcing her candidacy. Congresswoman Barbara Boxer had 143 bounced checks to account for. In the nastiest race of all, two New York feminists, Geraldine Ferraro and Elizabeth Holtzman, went down biting and clawing — to make way for a liberal man. And not all the new female candidates were even feminists: G.O.P. challengers Charlene Haar (South Dakota) and Linda Bean (Maine) proudly claimed to be “pro-life and pro-gun.”

Maybe that’s how it should be: pit-bull women, right-wing women, feminist women — all kinds of women in all their glorious diversity. Nothing in our genes, after all, says we have to be kinder, gentler and more committed to family leave. But with women’s representation in national politics still barely above presuffrage levels, it was only natural that most of the new female candidates would define themselves as women on a mission. Trailblazing is not a job for the uncommitted.

The winners shouldn’t expect to usher in the feminist millennium. With a Clinton Administration, there may be some easy wins on the Freedom of Choice Act, family leave and fetal-tissue research. But in a rating of his program by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington, Clinton received only a B-minus (Bush got a D), and in an effort to build a governing coalition, he may be tempted to distance himself from his party’s more feminist and liberal wing. In the House, where women have traditionally been relegated to inconsequential committees, the new crop of freshwomen will be starting at the bottom, struggling to get a word in edgewise. And of course there will still be that long, long walk to the ladies’ room.

As for the losers, plus all the women who felt they were too poor, too inexperienced or too young to run this time: nowhere is it written that 1994 need be the 218th Year of the Man. Everything that the new female Senators and Congresswomen manage to accomplish will add to the credibility of the next surge of female candidates. And everything they don’t get done will only add to the anger, and hence to the feminist resources, available to fuel the fire next time.

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