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Women and Power

Women and Power

In 1992, Congresswoman Pat Schroeder told Wendy Kaminer, “Congresswomen aren’t powerful.”

Hard to believe that that was 16 years ago.

Nancy Pelosi was in Congress then. She was first elected to serve in 1987, and became Democratic Whip for one year before being chosen as the leader of the Democrats in 2002 and then, with the Democratic takeover of 2006, being chosen as Speaker of the House.

That’s a woman with power.

In 1992, there were two women in the Senate and 28 women in the House (out of 435).

Today, there are 70 women in the House and 16 in the Senate, as well as three nonvoting women delegates from Guam, the Virgin Islands and Washington, D.C. While it’s still far from a representative sampling of America, it’s better than it was in 1992, right?

Democrat Barbara Mikulski was one of the two women senators in 1992. She voted against the confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. The other woman, Republican Nancy Kassebaum, voted to confirm.

Despite hints like this that women do not necessarily vote in solidarity with their gender, the argument is still often made that women in Congress pay more attention to women’s issues. Today, with a woman running for President ‘seriously’ (though I already pointed out how misleading that term ‘seriously’ is here) it is interesting to look back at Kaminer’s article from 1992 on women in politics and see what has changed.

The three obstacles, Kaminer pointed out back then, to women’s being elected are competence, electability, and toughness.

Just to look at Clinton’s campaign this year, one can see these issues being played out. Clinton’s choice to frame herself as the candidate of ‘experience’ can be seen as a strike against the argument of competence. She’s been there and done that, she says, so we know she can do it.

In Kaminer’s article, former Senate candidate Harriett Woods was hurt both by a negative ad that she ran against her male opponent, and by the appearance of ineptitude in her campaign structure. While Clinton’s negative ads don’t seem to have hurt her, the appearance of trouble in her campaign structure certainly has. Despite record fundraising, her campaign has the most debt among her, Obama and McCain, and recent stories have highlighted her campaign’s failure to pay its bills, including the health insurance premiums for its staffers. These problems in her campaign may hurt her competence argument.

Of course, she can only successfully use that argument against someone like Barack Obama, since an opponent like Bill Richardson would have taken that angle away from her, as her experience is largely grounded in her time as first lady, not in elected office.

Electability is the most problematic of the three right now, as Clinton is behind in pledged delegates. More troubling is the fact that, as NPR phrased it, the Clinton campaign’s argument to the superdelegates is based on the theory that the white working-class voters who support her are less likely to vote for Obama in the general.

Translation, if you didn’t get that: the racists will vote for Clinton, but they won’t vote for a black man.

Putting aside that train of thought for a minute, we can point out that Clinton has won big ‘blue’ states like Massachusetts and California, and also won the swing state of Ohio, so she can certainly claim electability. Her fundraising, though of late falling behind Obama and landing her in debt, has been stellar.

Toughness is the one that I noticed her striking out against from the very first debate, when she used words like “retaliate” and “destroy,” and her votes in the Senate were usually on the more hawkish side of the Democratic bloc, from the Iraq war onward. She’s continually harped on this to the point of semi-successfully feminizing her male opponent with her ‘red phone’ ad.

So, has Hillary Clinton overcome these barriers? Can we safely say that she’s slightly behind now due solely to her own failings as a candidate?

Or would she be much further ahead if she were a man?

The problem with Hillary Clinton is that it’s impossible to separate her from her husband. If she were a man, she wouldn’t have been married to a former president and she wouldn’t be able to run on that experience. (That theoretical man would still have more elected experience than John Edwards had, and be on a level with Barack Obama, but that’s another story.) 

And of course, the other side of the coin is that her last standing Democratic opponent is a black man, which presents its own set of problems, as we discussed last week.

While the press has been having a field day with the race issue, especially in Pennsylvania, it has been quiet lately on the issue of gender, though the issue certainly hasn’t gone away.

White men are the swing vote, I hear over and over again. This is the first time that white men don’t have an easy candidate who looks like them to vote for, and Clinton and Obama must both prove that they can keep those white men from swinging to McCain in a general election.

Implicit in this narrative, of course, is the idea that white men are dumb enough to vote for someone simply because he looks like them, which is the same idea we’ve heard over and over again in reference to blacks and women this campaign cycle.

“It is probably not realistic,” Kaminer said, “even to hope that women might someday win or lose elections without being helped or hurt by stereotypes. Campaigning is the art of the superficial: it’s about rhetoric, not policy; the manipulation of images, not the exchange of ideas.”

She also noted that, “The use of feminine stereotypes to advance a feminist agenda is a central, historic irony of the American women’s movement.”

We saw this work really only once in this campaign, the infamous ‘tears’ moment. All the rest of the time, Clinton has been fighting feminine stereotypes, usually of the negative kind. Perhaps because Obama stole the compassion and compromise ground from her, speaking of diplomacy instead of bombs and drawing the line between his anti-war position and Clinton’s war support. Both candidates, in other words, have painted Clinton as the more masculine stereotype, an odd place for her to be.

MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann slammed Clinton, saying she was campaigning like she was the Republican and Obama was the Democrat.

Lynn Martin, Republican from Illinois, noted to Kaminer that being a Republican and a woman made it twice as hard for her: “One group won’t vote for you because you’re a woman, another group of women voters won’t vote for you because you’re a Republican.”

Hillary Clinton, of course, is not a Republican and thus doesn’t have this problem to the same degree, but she does have what Lakshmi Chaudhry called a “feminist problem.”

Some feminists, especially those opposed to the Iraq war, are skeptical of Clinton because of the same things that have made her a more credible candidate among those supposedly all-important white men. In Newsweek, Martin Linsky went so far as to call Obama the “first woman president” because of his more feminine rhetoric.

Kaminer reminded us back in 1992 that pacifism has been a historical part of the women’s movement. Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress, lost her seat after she voted against going to war with Germany in 1917. The National American Woman Suffrage Association split with a younger group of feminists over World War I as well, when the younger women, the National Woman’s Party, vowed to fight the Democrats in office to force suffrage as an issue. NAWSA supported Woodrow Wilson because he kept America out of the war.

Ann Lewis, political consultant, said to Kaminer that, “We would know we had the first woman candidate for president when we saw a female senator on a battleship, reviewing the troops.”

Was Clinton’s story about ducking sniper fire in Bosnia her version of reviewing the troops? And now that it’s been revealed to be a “misstatement,” is it her version of Dukakis on the tank? I haven’t seen anyone calling her weak because she didn’t actually take sniper fire. The comments have centered more on calling her a liar, or an exaggerator, and as Al Gore could tell us, those traits are gender-neutral.

In 2006, I took issue with the idea that the Democrats were the “mommy party,” as stated on the front page of the New York Times. This outdated idea may be being disproved right now by the current primary campaign. No one would dare refer to Hillary Clinton as a “mommy,” even when her daughter is campaigning for her (and shall we bring up the disgusting ‘pimped out’ comments or the obsessive need to ask Chelsea Clinton about Monica Lewinsky as if it somehow is relevant right now?)

In 1992, when Carol Moseley Braun was running for the Senate, she indicated to Wendy Kaminer that she would “play the gender card,” but not the race card because it was “too divisive.”

Why, Kaminer wondered, was the gender card not also too divisive? Perhaps, she noted, “because sexual loyalties have always been mitigated by race (and class) more than race has been mitigated by sex.”

Or, more cynically, because there are usually not enough black voters in a state to hand victory to a candidate painted as the ‘black’ candidate, while there are definitely enough women to swing an election.

(Moseley Braun was elected to the Senate, then defeated in 1998 by white male Republican Peter Fitzgerald, who was then replaced in 2005 by Barack Obama. Meanwhile, Moseley Braun was running for president and not winning majorities of either black or female voters. But at least she wasn’t being asked questions about her husband.)

America has come a long way since 1992, and even since 2004. Though people are debating Hillary Clinton’s honesty and electability, particularly against a Republican machine viewed as primed to go after her, virtually no one has debated her competence and ability to do the job. Even her opponent states that she is certainly qualified, he just thinks he’d do a better job—something she has not said about him.

Just how much is gender having an effect in this race? I guess we won’t know the answer until it’s all over, and probably not even then.

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