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> Columns > Boston Globe > How women really fared

How women really fared

By Cathy Young | November 18, 2002

At first glance, 2002 definitely does not look like the year of the woman in politics. So-called "women's issues," domestic and family-oriented, were virtually nonexistent in this campaign, which revolved heavily around national security and the war against terrorism - though surely these issues affect women as much as men.

Women candidates did not fare spectacularly well, either: their numbers in the House and the Senate have not budged, and the number of governorships they hold has gone from five to six. Finally, with the White House and both houses of Congress in Republican hands, feminist groups are understandably nervous about the future of abortion rights. Some conservatives, such as Family Research Council fellow Pia de Solenni in National Review Online, point to the election results as evidence of a turning tide on social issues such as abortion. But that's quite a stretch. De Solenni gives only one example - the Missouri Senate race - in which poll data seem to show that prolife voters played a key role in Republican Jim Talent's victory.

Sandy Rios, president of Concerned Women for America, has also pointed to Norm Coleman's victory in Minnesota; but there, the backlash against the disgraceful memorial-service-turned-political-rally for the late Senator Paul Wellstone probably did far more to galvanize Republican voters than the abortion issue.

The real problem for the Democratic Party, most commentators agree, was the lack of a clear message on anything, including the war against terrorism. The Republicans' unprecedented success in the midterm elections was due to the war and the aftermath of Sept. 11 - either because the Republicans cynically exploited the issue of patriotism or because the Democrats missed the boat on national security, depending on which way you look at it.

If the Republicans decide that, as Rios has suggested, they can write off prochoice voters and drop any effort to be a "big tent" on the abortion issue, it could come back to haunt them in future elections. This is particularly true if the threat to abortion rights ever becomes real enough to galvanize prochoice constituents, most of all young women for whom the personal, in this case, is indeed political.

If conservatives are being overconfident, feminists are probably too inclined to cry that the sky is falling. The Republican Party is not a monolith on the issue of abortion. What's more, it is the nature of American politics to pull those in power toward the mainstream. Attorney General John Ashcroft, a favorite of the religious right, sanctioned a "Gay Pride Day" celebration at the Justice Department last June, to the almost comical dismay of many of his supporters. ("It won't matter if we dismantle terrorism if we implode from within," lamented Rios. The rising prominence of fairly extreme social conservatives in the Republican Party is disturbing for libertarian conservatives such as myself. But part of the blame rests with groups that represent liberal positions on social issues - women's rights, abortion rights, gay rights, etc. Inclined toward a knee-jerk allegiance to the political left, these groups have not done much to cultivate their potential base among socially moderate Republicans.

With the terrorist attack on America still fresh in our memories, it is not surprising that "women's issues" have taken a back seat to national security - or that we are less likely than before to divide issues by gender.

Indeed, amid the paucity of election victories for women candidates, there has been some encouraging news. One bright new rising star, Michigan governor-elect Jennifer Granholm, has been hailed as representative of a new type of political woman - one who does not make an issue of being a woman. A Democrat who counts Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. among her political heroes, she also names former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher as a role model.

In San Diego, an openly gay state judge, Bonnie Dumanis, was elected district attorney in a politically conservative county. While the race was a bitter one, her sexual orientation never came up.

By contrast, in Massachusetts, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Shannon O'Brien made gender an issue in her campaign when she tried to portray her opponent Mitch Romney's criticism of her "unbecoming" attacks on him as a coded sexist slur. She lost.

While some claim that women politicians are in fact punished for being aggressive, it is at least equally true that a male candidate who aggressively attacks a woman opponent risks being perceived as a bully. But it could be that these double standards are receding on both sides. If the time for Years of the Woman has passed, that's probably a good thing.

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