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Let's Ask Men Some of Those Silly Questions

September 20, 1987|Kay Mills | Kay Mills is a Times editorial writer.

By month's end, Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) plans to announce whether she will run for President. A big question, because of her late start, has been whether she can raise enough money to be a durable candidate. "No dough, no go," she says.

But there is another question: If she runs, will she be subjected to the usual barrage of gender-related questions, questions no reporter would ask a man, Gary Hart notwithstanding?

The answer, of course, is yes. But if Schroeder does not run, it will not be because she can't handle silly questions. She can, because she, like many other female politicians, has heard them all her public life and is quick with a quip. Public and press alike are legitimately interested in a candidate's children, in what baseball team he or she roots for or whether grandfather was a coal miner--although none of the above may have anything to do with how the candidate would govern. But female candidates are more likely to be asked what their husbands will do if they get elected, when they do their dishes or what their favorite recipe is. Yes, it still happens in 1987. Yes,silly, but it's serious as well, because it impedes women's progress toward equal treatment in many walks of life.

Schroeder, an attorney who graduated from Harvard Law School, usually has a comeback. Asked, for example, what it's like to be a woman running for President, she replies, "Do I have another option?"

Schroeder might consider an option raised by Minnesota Secretary of State Joan A. Growe, who ran for the U.S. Senate in 1984 and lost to Republican Rudy Boschwitz. Growe told Schroeder that she wished that the day before she announced her candidacy, she had called in reporters and invited them to ask all their silly, irrelevant questions that day, since henceforth she would talk only about the issues. "I didn't do that," Growe said in an interview recently, "therefore, I answered silly, irrelevant questions throughout the campaign."

So did her 24-year-old son, who campaigned for her and who was interviewed by a radio reporter in a rural town five days before the general election. They talked about Growe's views on issues like farms and finances and finally, just as the interview was ending, the reporter said in all seriousness, "Tell me, David, will your mom have a nice, hot, cooked meal for you when you go home?"

Just this spring, a local reporter called Los Angeles City Council member Gloria Molina's office to ask why Molina had not talked about pregnancy during her special election campaign. Molina, who was elected Feb. 3, had her baby June 23. She hadn't known she was pregnant until after she started the campaign, and told the reporter she didn't think the matter was relevant. But he pressed on; didn't she have a responsibility to inform the voters because of the new demands on her time that might limit ability to serve constituents?

While pregnancy mercifully is not permanent, motherhood is--but many mothers (and fathers) are permanently in the work force. Molina's aides point out that her colleague, Zev Yaroslavsky, has children he helps care for. How many times do you suppose Yaroslavsky is asked about divided attention?

Female politicians are, of course, not the only women who face these questions. Any woman trying to do anything different attracts the questions until she proves herself. "The difference," said Growe, "is that the silly questions female politicians are asked tend to be public."

The media asks them and voters ask them through the media. Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Greenbrae) recalls that during her 1972 campaign for the Marin County Board of Supervisors, local papers ran letters to the editor accusing her of neglecting her two children.

The irony was that Boxer's opponent, who won in a close race, had the same number of children, held another job in addition to his post as a supervisor and had a wife who worked. But he was not accused of neglecting children. Boxer was later elected supervisor in 1976 and went to Congress in 1982; she said she hasn't encountered the silly questions since that first campaign.

Silly questions made the front pages in 1984 when Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman on a national presidential ticket. Should Ferraro and Walter F. Mondale kiss or shake hands when meeting, it was asked, and should Mondale, as the presidential candidate, go through a door first or should he let the woman go first? And, asked Mississippi's agriculture commissioner, could Ferraro bake a blueberry muffin? "Sure can," she replied. "Can you?"

Then what are the legitimate questions? Questioning personal finances is legitimate. Questioning ethics is legitimate. Questioning judgment is legitimate and that, and not adultery, was the question Gary Hart never understood.

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