CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / U.S. SENATE : Feinstein Intensifies Focus on Feminist Issues


With evidence all around her that this year may be as good for women candidates in California as it has been elsewhere, Dianne Feinstein is hitting hard on feminist issues--and it seems to be working as she campaigns for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate.

On recent stops in the Inland Empire, Feinstein drew good turnouts in Rialto and Riverside, where she received star treatment that few candidates are getting this year.

After Feinstein gave an upbeat speech to 1,250 businesswomen at Riverside’s convention center, a large group of women lined up for her autograph and to pose for photos with her.

One woman executive, a Republican from Orange County who voted for Ronald Reagan and George Bush in past presidential elections, said: “Even though it sounds like a very unintelligent thing to say, and it’s not a general rule with me, I will probably vote for Dianne because she is a woman. I think women have been scrutinized so much that they have to be better than men to get where she is.”

Already this year, women U. S. Senate candidates have scored long-shot victories in primaries in Illinois and Pennsylvania. Democrat Carol Moseley Braun defeated incumbent Sen. Alan J. Dixon in the Illinois primary in March, and Lynn Yeakel rose from anonymity to defeat Democratic Lt. Gov. Mark Singel in the Pennsylvania primary a month later.


Braun and Yeakel campaigned on a wave of anger among women over the way the nearly all-male U. S. Senate handled the sexual harassment charges leveled against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas by law professor Anita Faye Hill.

Feinstein is blending her understanding of urban politics, gleaned from a successful career in San Francisco municipal government, with a feminist appeal that audiences in Rialto and Riverside responded to enthusiastically during campaign stops Friday.

Her opponent in the Democratic race, state Controller Gray Davis, argues that Feinstein is too moderate on women’s issues and that he is the best “feminist” in the race, but Feinstein does not pull any punches at campaign stops when talking about discrimination against women.

She spices her speeches with lines such as “2% may be OK for milk, but it isn’t for the U. S. Senate,” a reference to the fact that only two women serve in the 100-member legislative body, or, “To be thought of as equal, a woman has to be twice as good, but fortunately that’s not too difficult.”

Those lines drew strong applause and laughs from the 1,250 women who sold out the luncheon in Riverside.

The women, some trying to balance a cellular phone with one hand and a briefcase with the other, listened attentively. They reacted with weary sighs or knowing smiles as Feinstein recounted her struggles in a male world, first as a woman looking for a job fresh out of Stanford University in the 1950s, and then as a single mother in the early 1960s.

She related how her chances to win a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors were brushed off in 1969. There was already one woman on the board and she said she was told there “is only room for one woman.”

And she talked about how she had helped other women get jobs. “We are door-openers for one another, and we should not forget that,” she told the women in the audience, adding, a few minutes later, that women are still bumping against a “glass ceiling” in trying to get corporate jobs. “We need to shatter it,” she said.

After her speech, a number of women, including several Republicans, said they planned to vote for her. They said Feinstein struck a responsive chord, and related her experiences to their own.

One, Robin Mammoth, 27, is not registered to vote, but said Feinstein may have motivated her to register. The young woman is hoping to start a small retail pet supply business. Feinstein, she said, “hit on some issues that really need to be brought up. That 2% figure bothers me.”

Marhnelle Hibbard, a motivational speaker from Orange County who puts on seminars for Fortune 500 companies, is a Republican who plans to vote for Feinstein.

Hibbard said the seminars she puts on usually are for almost all-male groups of executives. “When I go into a room and it is not 95% men, I look around because I think I’m in the wrong place,” she said.

Jeannette Leimel, 21, is a student at Riverside Community College who hopes to go into the real estate business next year. Carrying a small pocket camera, she got someone to take her photo with Feinstein after the candidate’s speech. “Thank you,” she told the former mayor. “You are a great mentor.”

Leimel said she feels gender discrimination and does not like it. “I went to San Francisco a few months ago with my older brother. Everyone spoke to him first and ignored me. It was pretty odd,” she said. “I have a real problem with that.”

At the other stop, in a trailer park for senior citizens on a wind-swept bluff in Rialto, Feinstein did not hit feminist issues as hard, but did not shy away from them. Commenting on the need for a universal health insurance program, she told an audience of about 40 senior citizens that “women have been getting the short end of the stick” on health care. She also repeated a favorite line that “if the death rate for cancer of the testicles was the same as it is for breast cancer, you’d be sure Congress would do something about it.”

The positive response to her message is leaving Feinstein looking fresh, relaxed and happy, in contrast to two years ago, when she often seemed tense and nervous during her unsuccessful race for governor.

With a strong lead over Davis in public opinion polls, Feinstein is thinking beyond the June 2 primary.

“We have to be in position, ready to go, the day after the primary. Nothing is going to stop. There will be no vacations after the primary, just keep going,” she told reporters in Rialto.

Taking nothing for granted, Feinstein has kept up a busy primary campaign schedule, often appearing at three or four events in one day, something that not even Davis is doing. “I have never worked harder in any campaign,” she said.

Feinstein, who has been campaigning almost nonstop for three years, said she has campaign committees set up in 30 of California’s 58 counties. She said she had targeted Riverside and San Bernardino counties for special attention because “we should have done better here in the gubernatorial campaign. We lost each (county) by 50,000 votes, and should not have.”