Cover Story

I am woman (hear me roar!)

Was the 1992 "year of the woman" overhyped?

Issue: "Who's marching now?," Oct. 17, 1998

Powered by righteous indignation about sexual harassment, a wave of gender politics was supposed to sweep into power outsider female politicians who would shake up the system. They've shaken it. By giving Bill Clinton a pass, liberal feminist senators have helped render sexual harassment virtually meaningless as a political crime. Next month, those year-of-the-woman incumbents face the judgment of the voters. Maybe the Old Boys' Club can start dusting off its "no girls allowed" sign. There are no New Democrats here. Only the older sort mill around this corner of Garden Park, a sliver of green on a manufactured beach beside Lake Michigan. Most of the joggers ignore the campaign signs and fliers being handed out; the next group over, a family reunion, breaks up just before the Democrats' party gets going. (They aren't annoyed at the politics; they simply realized no beer is allowed in the park.) The beer-free bash is a birthday party for Carol Moseley-Braun, perhaps the most hyped winner in 1992's "Year of the Woman." Along with Barbara Boxer of California and Patty Murray of Washington, Ms. Moseley-Braun was supposed to end once and for all the insular world of the Senate Old Boys' Club. Six years later, the senior senator from Illinois turned 51, and it's easy enough to guess what she wished for as she blew out the candles on her cake. The party had been underway for nearly an hour before the band found enough extension cords to power its amps and PA system. "Small Potatoes," the deputy press secretary says cheerfully-that's the name of the band, not a comment on the music. It's a husband-and-wife folk duo, with sandals, faded denim, and fuzzy, flowing gray hair. (The husband's is longer.) When they start the set, the crowd listens appreciatively. A wizened old bearded man, smoking a Swisher Sweet (the only cigar and the only tobacco visible at this gathering), nods and smiles. "Like the old days." Old days, indeed. The 50 or so people gathered here are unreconstructed liberals, the core of the Democratic Party-its affirmative-acting, health-care-for-all, wealth-redistributing heart and soul. The animated conversations here are the ones about health-care ("Oh, we're for as close to universal healthcare as you can get," according to deputy press secretary Julie Karant); school infrastructure ("We've got to spend the money," insists a state comptroller candidate); and the Republican challenger, state Sen. Peter Fitzgerald ("Once the voters see how extreme he is-like on concealed weapons!" Miss Karant says knowingly). For Ms. Moseley-Braun, the "old days" of the Democratic Party wouldn't necessarily be considered the "good old days." The hardcore-liberal demographic at this gathering signifies a shift in support that could cause real headaches for Sen. Moseley-Braun's re-election effort, in spite of her birthday wish. "She's got some work to do with soccer moms," admits her field rep, Claude Walker. "But our core is strong. The African-Americans, the gays, the Hispanics, the pro-choice voters. They're all energized." But that assessment came during the euphoria of the birthday party-and it did not take into account voter reaction to President Clinton's woes and Ms. Moseley-Braun's unwillingness to do unto her leader what she had done unto purported male sexist pigs like Clarence Thomas, Sen. Bob Packwood, and any man within a five-mile radius of the infamous Tailhook gathering. Ironically, Ms. Moseley-Braun was not alone in her reluctance to be an equal-opportunity feminist. Her sisters in the Senate were at least as muted in their outrage-a stance that has not escaped the notice of voters. Polls show Democrats everywhere dispirited by their leader's sexual escapades, but most Americans are willing to forgive as long as the Clinton scandal is "just about sex." The problem for Sens. Boxer, Murray, and Moseley-Braun is that the scandal, for them, is about more than just sex. It's about hypocrisy, a sin that voters seem less ready to forgive. To one degree or another, all three women were swept into office in the wake of Anita Hill. Now, all three may be swept out in the backwash of Monica Lewinsky. For conservatives hoping to shake up a stodgy Senate, these three races are key. Reversing the Year of the Woman could well usher in the Year of the Unborn, since only three votes are needed in the upper chamber to override President Clinton's veto of a bill banning partial-birth abortion. Also, five more seats would allow Republicans to end filibusters, a stalling technique the Democrats have used to kill legislation ranging from missile defense to education reform. How likely is it that all three Year of the Woman senators will be sent packing? Consider the latest polls: In California, little-known state treasurer Matt Fong leads little-liked Barbara Boxer by five percentage points among likely voters-this despite the fact that he had yet to begin running television commercials when the poll was taken. In Illinois, Ms. Moseley-Braun trails her Republican rival by 10 points, an almost unheard of deficit for an incumbent senator. And in Washington, Linda Smith, a self-professed Christian conservative, trails Patty Murray by just 7 points in the latest independent poll. Although her lead has been cut in half in the past several weeks, Ms. Murray seems to be in the least trouble because she has done the best job of broadening her base. Rather than limiting herself to so-called women's issues, she has sponsored bills on everything from lowering fees at bank ATMs to protecting exotic pets. By positioning herself as a senator rather than a female, she may be able to ride out the Clinton storm. But not if her challenger, Linda Smith, can help it. The outspoken Republican reformer denounced the White House for its "shredding of women's reputations" in the Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey cases. She wants voters to remember that Ms. Murray was voluble in her criticism of Bob Packwood, but barely visible when it came to the Clinton scandal. "Isn't it amazing how Patty Murray has been silent about the problems of the president?" she asked at a recent campaign event. Then, in reference to the senator's carefully crafted image as a "mom in tennis shoes": "She seems to have traded in her tennis shoes for a pair of Hush Puppies." Coming from another woman, these charges of flip-flopping on sexual harassment may be particularly damaging to the incumbent. Ms. Smith clearly believes that message will resonate, if only she can raise enough money to make her voice heard. Fearful of her right-wing image, party officials at both the state and national level vocally supported her primary opponent, a wealthy lawyer with moderate political views. Ms. Smith surprised pundits by winning her primarily easily, but she had to spend heavily to do so. Now, facing a well-financed incumbent, she has the additional burden of a self-imposed ban on contributions from political action committees-part of her commitment to reform the Old Boys' Club in ways that Ms. Murray only talked about. Back in Illinois, Peter Fitzgerald also faced a tough primary against a pro-abortion Republican, state comptroller Lolita Didrickson. Once again, the party hierarchy supported the pro-abortion candidate, and once again it has yet to heal its wounds after a bitter primary. But Mr. Fitzgerald, a wealthy and conservative state senator, faces an incumbent whose wounds may be even more severe than his own. In addition to the Monica mess, Ms. Moseley-Braun faces dissatisfaction among the upper-middle-class white women who voted for her as a bloc six years ago. Now, says the Chicago Tribune, the senator is "in danger of being abandoned by the suburban female voters who helped elect her." Why the defections among suburban women? Ironically enough, Ms. Moseley-Braun is widely viewed as having done little to help women and suburbanites-and plenty to help herself. Chief among her problems are allegations of shady personal and financial dealings with her ex-fiancé and campaign manager, Kgosie Matthews. Immediately after the 1992 election, for example, the two traveled to Africa together to meet the controversial Nigerian dictator, the late Gen. Sani Abacha. The Federal Election Commission also conducted a long investigation of Ms. Moseley-Braun's travel and hotel expenses. Though ultimately dropped, the investigation cost the senator more than $100,000 in cash and much more than that in political capital, due to the perception that she dragged her feet and refused to cooperate. Thanks to that track record, 48 percent of voters in a recent poll said they considered their senator dishonest, and only 37 percent gave her a favorable rating, compared to an unfavorable rating of 40 percent. That's "a ratio not relished by incumbents on the eve of a reelection campaign," the Chicago Tribune noted with considerable understatement: A ratio of 2-to-1 favorable-to-unfavorable is considered the bare minimum for a confident reelection bid. Also shaking the confidence of the Moseley-Braun camp is the state governor's race, in which pro-life Rep. Glenn Poshard is carrying the Democrats' banner. With the Democratic ticket split between pro-life and pro-abortion candidates, strategists warn that pro-abortion voters may be so confused or disillusioned that they simply stay home on election day. Already discredited in the eyes of many soccer moms-and without the abortion issue to rally them to her cause-Ms. Moseley-Braun is considered one of the most vulnerable incumbent senators in the country. She shares that dubious distinction with California's Barbara Boxer, who has never managed to boost her approval rating above the 50 percent mark, even after six years in the Senate. Ms. Boxer elicits an almost visceral dislike among Republicans, while her opponent, state Treasurer Matt Fong, is only mildly objectionable to many Democrats. No one is more susceptible to charges of hypocrisy in the Monica Lewinsky affair than Ms. Boxer. As a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from the liberal San Francisco Bay area, it was she who led angry female congresswomen as they stormed the Senate, demanding the upper chamber take seriously Anita Hill's charges against Clarence Thomas. Later, she helped turn the Tailhook scandal into an ever-widening partisan witch hunt, and became a key figure in driving Bob Packwood from the Senate after charges of sexual improprieties. "Sexual harassment is about the abuse of power," she said by way of explanation for her zeal. "Do not make an exception in one case. That is a very perilous path, because the message that it could send is: The more embarrassing the transgression, the more protected you will be. And if it is sexual misconduct, you can count on it being behind closed doors. And that is wrong not only to the women of this country, but to their husbands, to their sons, to their fathers ... we are all in this together." All except Bill Clinton, evidently. When the president was accused of serious-and serial-sexual wrongdoing, Ms. Boxer maintained a determined silence. As Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and other principled Democrats began to speak out, she finally allowed that the president's "immoral" behavior and "misleading" statements disappointed her. But, she hastened to add, the nation should simply "move on" to more important matters. The president, she stressed, "led us to a balanced budget and [has] visionary public policies." But voters suspect that Ms. Boxer's own vision is somewhat limited when it comes to the first family. She's a distant relative, after all, her daughter having married Hillary Clinton's brother, Tony Rodham. Moreover, she is utterly dependent on the Clintons' fundraising prowess to keep her even marginally competitive in her race. The first lady has flown to California four times to help her sister-in-law's mom, with the latest event bringing $200,000 into Ms. Boxer's campaign coffers. The president himself has also lent his considerable fundraising skills to the cause, though his appearances are kept low-key and off-limits to news photographers. All the money in the world, however, may not be enough to make voters forget their senator's double standard. In a recent Los Angeles Times poll, almost one in three respondents said Ms. Boxer's handling of the Clinton scandal would make them less likely to vote for her. That may well spell doom for the senator ranked "most liberal" by the non-partisan National Journal. Indeed, supporters of Mr. Fong are feeling so good about their prospects that the state party recently warned them not to take the race for granted in the campaign's closing weeks. By Nov. 4, the Year of the Woman could well be dismissed as a passing fad. Without the indignation generated by the Anita Hill hearings and the novelty of seeing female names on the ballot, "women running for reelection are perceived more as incumbents than as women," in the words of The New York Times. If all three female incumbents-or even two of the three-are tossed out after a single term, it will be a bitter pill for the Democrats, who hoped that 1992 marked the beginning of a reliably Democratic female voting bloc. Even the moniker "Year of the Woman" showed their belief that all women thought alike and could be counted on to vote in a certain way. In hindsight, 1992 may have to be rechristened the "Year of the Liberal, Pro-Abortion, Special-Interest Woman." This time around, the rest of the female population may find its voice.

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