Whatever Happened to ‘The Year of the Woman’? : Politics: With the march toward parity stalled, 700 officeholders and political operatives convene to figure out how to make women candidates viable in 1996.


Just three years ago the talk in political circles was that women were finally on a fast-track toward political parity with men.

After the 1992 elections in the so-called Year of the Woman, the number of women in Congress and in state legislatures increased dramatically. The percentage of women in Congress had nearly doubled to 10%, and in the 50 state legislatures it had increased to 21%, up from 18%.

The feminist slogan “50/50 by 2000" was born.

But the 1994 election proved the slogan was overly optimistic. When the dust settled from the revolution wrought by Newt Gingrich and the “contract with America, the percentage of women in Congress and in the state houses was unchanged.


The march toward parity had stalled. What’s more, the number of women running for legislative posts had declined sharply, the first such decline in 20 years.

Now the 1996 election is fast approaching, and much of the discussion at the just-completed Forum for Women State Legislators, sponsored by the Center for the American Woman and Politics, concerned how to regain the momentum and passion of 1992. The center is located at Rutgers University as part of the Eagleton Institute of Politics.

The quadrennial convention, which ended at the Hotel del Coronado on Sunday, attracted 700 women officeholders and political operatives looking for answers and strategies. The rallying cry may have come Saturday from former congresswoman Bella Abzug, a revered figure to the assemblage.

“We have fewer women running for Congress,” roared Abzug. “This is unacceptable.”

If there was a consensus on how women should campaign in 1996 it was this: Don’t flinch from those traits associated with women--compassion, sincerity, high ethics, good judgment, concern with family--and be ready to prove that you are not soft on crime.

If women candidates made a mistake in 1994, said Republican political consultant John Deardourff, it was “not running as women.”

Remember that the electorate is edgy, anxious about the economy, disaffected with both political parties, and eager for change, Deardourff said. A woman displaying compassion and sincerity can be perceived as representing change in a way that yet-another male politician cannot, he said.

“If there is going to be a change in the [voters’] mood, it is going to have to come from women candidates,” Deardourff said.

Much the same message was delivered by Amy S. Conroy, executive director of the Women’s Campaign Fund, a bipartisan group devoted to electing women who are pledged to keeping abortion legal.

“Change continues to be a driving issue in our elections,” Conroy said. “Voters are very distrustful but women have a lot of what voters are looking for.”

To drive home that point, Conroy’s group, with funding from the Ford Foundation, is launching a national advertising campaign around the theme, “Who Needs More Women In Government?” The ads note that women in the 103rd Congress (1993-94) helped pass legislation on health care, housing, child support and other family issues.

Polling done by both Republicans and Democrats shows that voters are increasingly concerned with what they perceive as a decline in American morals, with children (particularly their safety at school) and with “kitchen-table” economics.

All of these are issues tailor-made for women candidates, said Democratic pollster and strategist Celinda Lake, an insider in the Clinton Administration.

But if some gender generalizations work in favor of women candidates, there is one that works against them, and it concerns the biggest political concern of them all: crime.

Unless a woman candidate is forcefully in favor of the death penalty, has law enforcement experience (being a prosecutor is best), or some compelling experience as a crime victim, she will be seen as soft on crime, Lake said.

This is true almost regardless of what women say about the issue, Lake said. So what is a woman candidate to do?

For one thing, Lake suggested, women should give up talk about rehabilitating criminals, except possibly for boot-camps for juveniles. The public no longer believes in rehabilitation for adults.

A second suggestion, Lake said, is for women candidates to find a crime for which they can call for longer sentences. Child molesting is a good one, but domestic violence is tricky because it might engender a backlash from men.

“It will be a good thing for us if crime is not the top issue in 1996,” Lake said.

Although the convention was devoted to the future of women, there was also talk of the past, particularly the recent past when more women headed to Congress in January, 1993 (47 in the House, 8 in the Senate) than ever before in the nation’s history. The male establishment was forced to yield a measure of power, and the women’s caucus become a player.

Much of that camaraderie has been lost since 1994. The women’s caucus, which had included both parties, was disbanded as part of the Republican takeover. Several liberals, including Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky of Pennsylvania and Rep. Lynn Schenk from San Diego were defeated.

A study by the Center for the American Woman and Politics, released Saturday, showed that in the 103rd Congress, Republican women were closer to Democratic women in their voting patterns on key social issues than they were to their Republican male counterparts.

With the arrival of more conservative Republican women for the 104th Congress, that pattern probably will not hold, conventioneers agreed.

Abzug, who served in Congress from 1971 to 1977 when there were but nine women members, said the answer to electing more women, particularly more liberal women, is obvious: less talk, more action.

“I think we’ve been very soft at this meeting,” she said. “I"d like to see us begin to get tougher.”

The convention erupted in a standing ovation.

“Don’t cry for me,” Abzug responded. “Just act.”