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A long history of sexism in politics

In 1950, Helen Gahagan Douglas lost a vicious Senate battle to Richard Nixon, a contest that was the breeding ground for today's campaign trench warfare.

December 22, 2009|By Sally Denton

Sarah Palin feels singled out as the victim of sexist smear tactics by the "liberal" media and rivals in the Democratic Party. But such tactics have been around since the first woman entered politics. And in one of the great political ironies in contemporary American history, the dirty tricks she so abhors are the brainchild of an infamous operative from her own party.

Politics: A Dec. 22 Op-Ed article about Helen Gahagan Douglas referred to Murray Chotiner as Karl Rove's mentor. They never worked together directly, but Chotiner pioneered the role of the modern political strategist in the 1950 Nixon-Douglas Senate race, paving the way for more recent strategists like Rove. —

Sixty years before Palin was thrust into the national limelight, Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas, the most powerful woman in California, was relegated to obscurity by a vicious political smear. Until entering politics at the age of 38 -- moved to action by the Dust Bowl refugees of the Depression -- Douglas had led a thoroughly apolitical East Coast life of privilege and fortune. The daughter of a millionaire engineer; wife of Melvyn Douglas, one of Hollywood's highest-paid leading men; a successful stage actress and opera singer known on two continents; and an heiress in her own right, Douglas shed her rarefied past and became a forceful advocate for California's oppressed and dispossessed. Given her intellect, passion, beauty and oratory skills, it was only a matter of time until she became a much-sought-after speaker on the subject.

Twenty years after women had been allowed to vote in all 50 states, her path from obscure celebrity housewife to political powerhouse in two short years charted new territory for herself and her gender. She was elected congresswoman from the 14th District, an inner-city borough that stretched from Sunset Boulevard to South Los Angeles. In 1945, she entered Congress as one of only nine women in an austere body in which most female members were congressional widows merely holding their husbands' seats while awaiting a suitable male replacement. She was elected to three terms, and her trajectory seemed unstoppable. Until Richard Nixon.

It was 1950. Douglas won the California Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate and faced the 37-year-old Republican in the general election. Nixon was a rising star in the increasingly reactionary national Republican Party. She was the Democratic Party's bright and shining hope.

At the beginning, she was widely favored to win. But the campaign was one of the dirtiest ever -- and a pivotal race in gender politics. The contest between "Tricky Dick" and the "Pink Lady," as it came to be known, was the breeding ground for the trench warfare that would dominate politics for decades to come. At the heart of it all was Nixon henchman Murray Chotiner, called the "Machiavelli of California politics" and later a mentor of contemporary hardball political operative Karl Rove.

Nixon was initially unsure how to handle a female opponent. He was keenly aware of the danger of appearing "ungallant," as he put it in his memoirs. He had what his press secretary described as "a total scorn for female mentality," yet he knew there was a fine line between bullying and firmly needling. Believing that women universally and biologically functioned on an emotional rather than cerebral plane, he held special enmity for Douglas and was affronted by the sheer audacity of her ambition. Her gifts threw him off balance, and he reacted with a vengeance, refusing to treat her as an equal.

"Not only was Nixon contemptuous of women's intellect generally, but he was also oblivious to women as individuals," his biographer, Fawn Brodie, wrote. He expected women to be pleasant adornments who shored up their husbands, and he was notorious for his dismissal of his wife, Pat, if she dared to inject herself into "the man's world of politics." In that male sphere, according to Henry Kissinger, Nixon's alter ego, Pat, "was a silent patriot ... a loyal and uninterfering female ... speaking only when spoken to and not sullying the cigar smoke with her personal opinions."

Douglas was stunned by the ferocious and insidious chauvinism that emanated from the Nixon camp. She crisscrossed the state in a two-seat helicopter -- a flashy and daring campaign tactic that by its rarity drew even more attention to her gender. Dubbed the "Helencopter," it had no roof, which meant her hair was usually windblown in an era of tightly coiffed up-dos, and she was labeled "unladylike." News stories warned voters they needed to "bear down" if they intended to "shove" her "out of the picture."

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