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THE STATE | THE RECALL CAMPAIGN

Schwarzenegger's Words About Women Are at Issue

As foes label him sexist, the candidate and his wife go on 'Oprah' to reach female voters.

September 16, 2003|Joe Mathews | Times Staff Writer

As a bodybuilder and actor, Arnold Schwarzenegger has a record of 30 years of statements, in his own writing and in interviews, about women and sexuality.

Now, as a candidate for governor, his words have returned as an issue in the campaign.

Political rivals have seized on some statements to call Schwarzenegger sexist, a misogynist and worse. His friends and aides say such quotes were exaggerated for effect, out of character or out of date.

Monday, in a move that campaign strategists hoped would improve his standing with women, Schwarzenegger appeared with his wife, Maria Shriver, on the season premiere of "The Oprah Winfrey Show." The nationally syndicated program, which has an 86% female audience, is one of the most watched on daytime television.

Female voters could be crucial to Schwarzenegger's ability to win the race to replace Gov. Gray Davis if Davis is recalled. Schwarzenegger and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante are in a tight race in several polls. But Schwarzenegger trails Bustamante by nine points among women in the most recent Los Angeles Times Poll, 35% to 26%.

Republican politicians typically receive more support from men than from women. With Schwarzenegger, however, political analysts say there may be an additional set of factors, including the tone of his campaign, which has targeted men through talk radio and rallies that Schwarzenegger often enters to heavy metal music.

But some of the weakness in his female support may be linked to Schwarzenegger's words. A man who made his name with his body, Schwarzenegger has talked about his sexuality and relations with women publicly for nearly three decades -- leaving behind a record of public statements like those of few American political figures.

A Times review of more than 100 examples of his interviews and writings from the past 30 years reveals that Schwarzenegger's habit of making off-color remarks about sex and women did not end in the 1970s, despite his defenders' claims to the contrary.

On "Oprah," for example, in dismissing his earlier comments about women as promotion for bodybuilding, Schwarzenegger said: "These were the times when I was saying, you know, 'A pump is better than coming,' " prompting Shriver to put her hand over her husband's mouth and say, "My mother is watching the show. Oh my God."

At the same time, Schwarzenegger's statements on women have long been far more nuanced -- and supportive -- than his critics acknowledge. Schwarzenegger, since his early days as a bodybuilder, has publicly praised women as equals.

Again and again when interviewed, Schwarzenegger has expressed an admiration for and an attraction to smart, independent, and above all "strong" women. In some cases, Schwarzenegger's most explicit language -- and his most explicitly feminist thoughts -- appear in the same interviews.

Democratic strategists have seized on the language, distributing his raunchiest comments. The Democratic National Committee assembled a group of professional women just last week to denounce him. A women's peace group, Code Pink, has begun to dog him at campaign appearances.

"He's the kind of guy, if you met him at a bar, you'd want to push him off his barstool," said Karen Pomer, a Code Pink organizer who e-mails reporters several times a day with tips on Schwarzenegger's personal foibles. "We're going to continue to be a thorn in his side."

From his earliest interviews, Schwarzenegger has sought to appear sexually frank and irreverent. As a bodybuilder, he was fond of graphically comparing the feeling of lifting weights to the pleasure of orgasm. He frequently dropped names of women he was attracted to ("I would love to watch Brigitte Bardot going to a gym and doing some bend-over lateral raises," he told The Times in 1975, for example).

He often turned questions about bodybuilding's reputation for attracting gays into seminars on his sexual performance. In his 1977 interview with Oui magazine, which dominated questioning on the campaign trail for two days, Schwarzenegger talked about his use of women for sexual "relief" during training and competition and described a group encounter with one woman who appeared naked at Gold's Gym in Venice Beach: "Everybody jumped on her and took her upstairs, where we all got together."

Even that interview, however, included Schwarzenegger's trademark praise of smart women, this time in the person of an ex-girlfriend. "I lived with a woman for five years," he said, "a very smart lady who teaches English at a college in California."

Schwarzenegger's campaign has responded forcefully and on many fronts to the allegation that he disrespects women. The campaign has offered testimonials from women who have worked personally with Schwarzenegger -- including Jamie Lee Curtis and Sharon Stone. The candidate himself has gushed publicly over his wife, and vice versa.

On "Oprah," Schwarzenegger said of his previous statements about women that "the idea was to say things that were so over the top so you get the headlines."

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