Trust Patricia Schroeder, the congresswoman from Denver, to have a good line for all political seasons. Asked how it felt to be running as a woman candidate, she replied: "Do I have an option?"
Gender clumped through the Texas gubernatorial race on Clayton Williams' big cowboy boots, and it showed itself more subtly in California as Dianne Feinstein toed the tightrope strung between the suits and the skirts. A woman won in Texas; a woman lost in California. So what?
Ann Richards' victory in Texas proves women can campaign negatively with the best of them to survive dirty primaries, as Richards did. It also helps when the other side picks a fool as your opponent. Richards already held statewide office; in troubled economic times, Texas voters went with the experienced populist, one with deep ties to the women's community, and not with the millionaire novice who couldn't remember how he voted on the only state ballot proposition.
Feinstein had a gray suit running against her, but Pete Wilson is nobody's fool, and he was the one who had held statewide office. Richards talks about taking the state capitol back for the people and it brings goose bumps; it's hard to imagine Feinstein stirring the same emotions.
Pundits have long predicted that this year, whichever year it is, women would move into office in greater numbers. Yes, there are more female statewide officeholders and state legislators. But the new Congress will only have 29 women in the House, two in the Senate. The number of female governors still stands at three.
Reapportionment in '92 will create new districts--up to 14 in California, Florida and Texas together. Outsiders like women have a better shot at becoming "insiders" when there are no insiders running. Nationally, women have the best opportunity to make big gains in 1992 that they are likely to have the rest of the century.
California's Proposition 140 limits the terms of legislators. Bad as that is, a few years from now, or as soon as court tests end, there'll be a new playing field. Did 1990 teach women candidates anything?
The California governor's race showed that women are still shy about running "as women." Mari Goldman, publisher of Women's Alert newsletter in Sacramento, had predicted Feinstein's loss on grounds she failed to persuade enough women to break a pattern of voting against their own interests. In Texas, Ann Richards showed that a woman can talk about family and women's economic issues and win, despite a wagonload of problems.
Wide-open legislative races would give women a chance to run close to home on issues close to home. They could run on what they truly care about--say, making children the centerpiece of their campaign--and that should appeal to women and men alike.
Vermont Gov. Madeleine Kunin cautions that candidates can't ask people to vote for them just because they are women. "That won't work. But I do think that because women do have slightly different life experiences, we have different strengths and interests, and we should emphasize those strengths."
Her advice to the women running in 1992 and beyond: "You have to talk about what you believe in. I think that bringing that conviction and compassion to the campaign still is a winning strategy, no matter what the pollsters say, particularly in these days when credibility matters."
The immediate task is to ensure that women are in place to run in new districts. The Opportunity Fund, created by a fund-raising organization known as EMILY's List, is already at work. It is trying to increase the number of Democratic women in Congress who are abortion rights advocates. Nothing bipartisan here. The strategy includes helping women get to the table where the redistricting maps are drawn. Districts tend to be drawn around candidates' bases, so why not draw some where women might be strong candidates?
EMILY's List Executive Director Wendy Sherman also advises women to understand what's at stake, to find out what running for office will cost, and to get their family house in order before running.
California women should be thinking beyond 1992. More women can get into the pool as the Legislature opens up. If women would run on issues that concern them as women, maybe, just maybe they would feel a mandate to govern as women and programs benefiting real people might be instituted. That would make these "years of the woman" good years for everybody. That's the whole point.