Female Politicians Break Out, Try New Tactics
NEAL CONAN, Host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
GOP: 1992, when unprecedented numbers of women ran for and won congressional seats; 2008, when Hillary Clinton came close to the presidential nomination, and Sarah Palin became the GOP's first female vice presidential candidate.
And this year, female candidates from both parties are in the media spotlight nationwide. Since Sarah Palin reclaimed feminism for conservative women with her mama grizzlies, record numbers of Republican women are running for political office and challenging traditional ideas of what female candidates should look like, how they should campaign and who may vote for them.
Women listeners, if you've run for political office, what was your experience like? Tell us your story. Our phone number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And we begin with Linda Chavez. Today she's chairman of the Virginia-based Center for Equal Opportunity and a syndicated columnist. In 1986, she was the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Maryland against Democrat Barbara Mikulski, and Linda Chavez joins us now by phone from her home in Virginia. Nice to have you on the program again.
LINDA CHAVEZ: Great to be with you, Neal.
CONAN: And this was in the mid-'80s, there were far few women in Congress, far few women running for office. What was the experience like?
CHAVEZ: Well, it was a very interesting experience, and it was the first time in modern history when two women faced each other in a Senate race who had not either been the widows of, or the daughters of persons who had died in office. So it was really the first two-woman race, and it was a very different time.
I think there was a lot of spotlight focused on us, and I think expectations were that it was supposed to be a very different kind of race because we were two women.
CONAN: And did expectations match the results?
CHAVEZ: Well, you know, I think it was very interesting. I probably had the worst gender gap in terms of votes of any candidate running in 1986. I only got about 30 percent, one out of three women's votes.
And what I found was that women are sometimes harder on other women and maybe just as prone to stereotyping as men. I was the more conservative candidate, and yet conservative women looked at me and saw a mother with three young children who they thought probably ought to have been at home taking care of those kids, not running for office.
Whereas the feminists in the state knew that I was not one of them, and so they weren't going to support me for that reason. So in some ways, I think I probably had a harder time with female voters than a male candidate would have.
CONAN: And were there lots of conversations with campaign consultants on, well, exactly how do you look, how do you present yourself, how feminine are you supposed to be, how masculine are you supposed to be?
CHAVEZ: Well, you know, I had a double whammy because I'm also an Hispanic when there were not very many Hispanics living in Maryland at the time. So my consultants were not just worried about feminine qualities but some of the ethnic qualities, as well.
CHAVEZ: reds, blues, you know, sapphires, emerald green. And I was told no, no, no. You need to dress is brown suits and navy blue suits and look very conservative because they were very worried about what the image was, and I think it was not just the female thing but the ethnic angle that was worrying them.
CONAN: And as you look around, well, a few years later, how do you think things have changed?
CHAVEZ: Well, I think there's still far too much talk about what women wear, what their hairdos are and what kind of jewelry they wear. I can remember one columnist talking about Barbara Mikulski and I going earring to earring in our debate.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CHAVEZ: And I think there were even some photos of us in a ring, battling each other, both of us wearing pearls and pearl earrings. So I do think there's still too much of that. We don't hear very much about what color tie a man wears or whether his suits are stylish or not.
CONAN: But the taboo on brightly colored dresses seems to have gone by the boards, for one thing.
CHAVEZ: I think that's true. I think that's true, and it's all for the good. And I look lousy in brown, I will tell you.
CONAN: There's also people playing different roles. I mean, it seemed like, for example, when Hillary Clinton was running for president, whatever you thought of the politics, her advisors seemed to think that she needed to be as tough as a man, as Barack Obama, her principal opponent in that race.
CHAVEZ: Well, that's right. But again, it's a double-edged sword because if a woman is too tough, they use the B-word or other less-flattering descriptions of women.
You know, a woman is described as shrill if she comes on strong in a debate. There's been a lot of discussion just over the last week about the Senate candidate, Ms. Angle, from Nevada telling her opponent, Majority Leader Harry Reid to man up.
So, you know, you can be tough, but if you get too tough, that backfires, as well.
CONAN: Joining us now is Rebecca Traister. She wrote about this topic for her new book, "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women." She also writes about women in politics at salon.com, and she joins us today from a studio in Philadelphia. Nice to have you with us.
REBECCA TRAISTER: It's great to be here, Neal.
CONAN: And your book argues that 2008 was a turning point for women in politics.
TRAISTER: Oh, absolutely. I mean, we saw the explosion of so much of the conventional wisdom that you can hear when Linda is talking about her experience in the mid-'80s, I mean, there is stuff that hasn't changed.
I was just reminded of - I don't know if you remember the debate question in one of the Democratic primary debates, in which Hillary Clinton was actually asked if she prefers diamonds or pearls in a debate. That was the actual question.
So there are things that we're still wrestling with, but, you know, Hillary also, part of the discussion about her clothes revolved around the rainbow- colored pantsuits that she wore, and it eventually became kind of celebrated.
And I was very interested to hear Linda talking about the women on the right who really thought that as a mother, she should probably be at home. Well, we've seen Sarah Palin and now the mama grizzlies totally sort of reinvent a vision of maternal political power.
And there may be a lot to say about the politics behind that, but this is kind of unprecedented, this notion - and I write in the book specifically about the moment when, as vice presidential candidate after the debate, Sarah Palin reached for her newborn child.
And there were a million sort of messaging, branding reasons that that baby was on the stage with her that night. But I, as somebody whose politics were very different from Palin's, also found that a thrilling moment in American history because to see a vice presidential contender holding a newborn baby meant that a world of possibility had opened up for other female politicians down the road.
CONAN: Linda Chavez, I wonder what you think about that.
CHAVEZ: Well, I think she's absolutely right. And I can remember discussing with my campaign consultants, I wanted to do a campaign commercial that showed me out in my front yard shooting hoops with my three sons. And they said absolutely not. You know, we don't want to remind people that you have young children.
And so things have changed dramatically, and I think we have matured as a country. I think women now are expected to be able to balance the roles of being mothers and also being in the workforce, including being, you know, all the way to the White House if need be.
But I still do think it's harder just in terms of practical dealing with young children if you are a candidate. I still that is a hurdle for women, and it isn't just the prejudice of voters. It's also just the balancing act itself.
CONAN: We're talking with Linda Chavez, who ran for the Senate in 1986, and with Rebecca Traister, author, "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women." We want to hear from the women in our audience who have run for public office. What was your experience like? 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll start with Cathy(ph), Cathy with us from Alamosa, Colorado.
CONAN: Hi, go ahead, please.
CATHY: Thanks for taking my call. I was the first woman elected district attorney in the state of Colorado in 1992. So we had that experience of running for an office that had been traditionally male, and it was an interesting election.
CONAN: There's few options when running for district attorney. Tough I think is the mode for everybody.
CATHY: Tough would be it, yeah, and you have to be careful, though, not to be too tough because then you don't look particularly interesting to the voters, either.
CONAN: So how did you decide to position yourself? Presumably you had experience as an ADA before?
CATHY: I did. One of the things that I thought was very important and still do is that victims often are the ones who do not have a voice in the system. So tough on crime, soft on victims was sort of the way we approached it.
CONAN: And how did it play out in the campaign?
CATHY: I won. I beat an Hispanic male who also had great credentials, and the San Luis Valley, where we lived, is an area that's heavily Hispanic, about 50/50 Anglo-Hispanic. And so we just had to convince the voters that we were going to do the best job, and they agreed.
CONAN: Was there any tinge during the campaign of she's a woman, she can't do it?
CATHY: Yeah, there was. One of the campaign flyers from the other side said something about go have tea and cookies with her because we had a reception at Adams State College, and some of the professors said there would be tea and cookies following our discussion. And that didn't go over too well.
CONAN: Hmm. Cathy, thanks very much. Are you still the district attorney there?
CATHY: I'm not. I'm retired now, but my heart's still in justice.
CONAN: Well, thank you very much for the phone call, appreciate it.
CATHY: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. And Rebecca Traister, it's interesting. You do still find - well, maybe still is not the word. You do find these kinds of sexist comments coming up not just in campaign materials but in campaign coverage.
TRAISTER: Oh, absolutely. I mean, there was certainly a profusion of it during 2008 and a profusion of it this year, when we're hearing - I believe it was Ken Buck - I hope I'm getting this right - who said about his primary opponent at some point that voters should vote for him because he doesn't wear high heels. That's another Colorado politician right there.
There have of course been some of the more recent gaffes. Joe Miller said about his opponent, Murkowski, Lisa Murkowski in Alaska, that she was a member of the world's oldest profession. There of course was the Jerry Brown aide who used an extremely unpleasant word, I don't know if we say it on the air or not, about Meg Whitman in California.
And so of course, we're still seeing it all the time, and we are seeing it from the media in the way - not just in terms of using that kind of tea and cookie or references to prostitute language but in the way they dismiss and laugh at and sort of fetishize the beauty and the appearance of a lot of these female candidates.
I think you see it coming from all kinds of different directions, both sexualizing theme, desexualizing them, treating them as aggressive and threatening and sort of monstrous, or as punch lines. There are a million different ways in which gendered resistance can be expressed.
CONAN: And it's interesting that while we're talking about women on this program, and they get a lot of the spotlight in these midterm elections, the overall number of women in Congress, the House and the U.S. Senate is expected to go down when the next Congress convenes in January.
We're talking about women in politics in this year's midterms. What's changed? If you've run for office as a woman, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
There's a huge number of candidates running in this midterm election for the House and Senate, more than 2,300. Many of them, especially on the Republican side, are women.
Two years after the election that saw Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton run at the top of the ballot, we're talking today about what's changed for female candidates.
TALK OF THE NATION: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
U: The Election that Changed Everything for Women."
And let's bring another voice into the conversation, Emily Bazelon, senior editor for Slate magazine, this week co-author of a piece called "51 Ways to Be a Woman: The Many New Scripts for Female Candidates," and she joins us from a studio in New Haven.
Nice to have you back on the program.
EMILY BAZELON: Thanks for having me.
CONAN: And you write in your column that not long ago, there were just a couple of categories a woman had to fit in in order to be a serious contender - no longer the case.
BAZELON: Right. We used to have the kind of Hillary Clinton-evoking, Margaret Thatcher model of being more masculine than men in many ways. And then as Rebecca was saying, Sarah Palin really busted that open by making her children kind of really part of her campaign and part of her image.
And now we have this plethora of female candidates. Some of them are in the mama-grizzly Palin mode, but there are a number of other kinds of profile and images that they're projecting, as well.
CONAN: For example?
BAZELON: For example, it's about the executives running. In California, there's Carly Fiorina running as a Republican for Senate and Meg Whitman running as a Republican for governor. And they both are drawing on this business experience, and particularly in Fiorina's case, she has talked very candidly about the kind of sexism she felt like she encountered in the boardroom.
And so that's part of her, you know, very upfront kind of feminism that she's projecting.
CONAN: And that she's cracked glass ceilings before.
BAZELON: Exactly. That is, indeed, one of her, the ways she's defining herself. And then in Connecticut, we have another Republican woman running for Senate, Linda McMahon, who's also running on her business experience. But in her case, the feminism part of it is a little more complicated because World Wrestling Entertainment - which is the company she started with her husband - has this very mixed record about women.
Her husband - there's this footage of him ordering a woman in the wrestling ring to bark like a dog, lots of other stunts like that that are kind of unappetizing from the point of view of, you know, promoting a positive and strong image of women. And so McMahon has had to answer for that kind of history.
CONAN: Is she as unique, I would say? This...
BAZELON: Yes, I think that's fair. And it's really interesting to watch her kind of toggle back and forth. On the one hand, she says, you know, I get credit for being this executive and having a history of competence in the boardroom. And on the other hand, if she was the one making the calls, where was she when these kinds of derogatory images of women were being presented?
CONAN: And you also write about a Democratic candidate for the House, Krystal Ball running in Virginia - again, unique.
BAZELON: Right. She's sort of irresistible right now. Krystal Ball, no one had ever heard of her, I would be safe to wager. She is a 28-year-old CPA. And then there were these embarrassing photos of her put out there. They're called her dirty Santa pictures.
She is with her then-husband, and he has this red dildo on his nose, and it's just a little embarrassing.
BAZELON: Her - right.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BAZELON: I'm embarrassed even to talk about it. But her way of dealing with it, instead of kind of crawling into a hole, which is what she says is the people who released the photos intended, she got out there and said, look, in this Facebook world for my generation, these kinds of embarrassing images are likely to surface.
They don't disqualify me in any way, and we need to stop dealing with women in this sexualized way, and assuming that just because we have some evidence of a woman's sexuality that that is somehow, you know, worse for her than it would be for a man in her position.
CONAN: We're talking with Emily Bazelon. Also with us: Rebecca Traister and Linda Chavez. We want to talk with women who've run for political office. Tell us your story. 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. Arnie is on the line from Concord, New Hampshire. And I think - this is Arnie Arnesen?
ARNIE ARNESEN: You got it, Neal. How are you?
CONAN: Good to talk with you, Arnie. Nice to know that you actually listen to the program from time to time.
ARNESEN: Well, of course I listen, and my ears were burning because in 1992, I was the first woman to run on a major party platform as the Democratic candidate for governor.
And it was so wild in this very Republican state, in a state that had never seen a woman run for any really major office.
CHAVEZ: That was the most sophisticated business speech I've ever heard. It's really too bad I can't vote for you.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ARNESEN: I went: Excuse me? And I said: Why? And then he gets kind of red in the face and looks down at his feet, and he says: It's because of that problem. And I said: Problem? He said: Well, you know, that regular problem. I said: That regular problem?
CONAN: Oh, he meant the monthly problem.
ARNESEN: You got it, honey. And I looked at him, and I said: So, tell me again, how good was that speech? And he said: You obviously get it, Ms. Arnesen.
And I said, well, what if I break it to you and tell you that I'm having that regular problem right now, and if I'm that good at this time of the month, imagine me the rest of the time.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ARNESEN: Now - it was - I mean, it was unbelievable, but it was a gift in a lot of ways because I got to tell that story over and over again, because we had to myth-bust. Because, you know, people needed to know that I wasn't going to fall apart and push the red button.
And it was just such an interesting, interesting political landscape. But what I need to tell you is is that the next woman to run for governor, you also know her name. Her name is Jeanne Shaheen. And right now, three out of the four major offices in New Hampshire, women are running for or probably going to even fill that slot.
And what I always remind women is some of us get to open the door. Others of us get to walk through it.
CONAN: Linda Chavez, I wondered if that had some interest to your ears, obviously running as a Republican candidate in a largely Democratic state?
CHAVEZ: Well, I think, you know, the biggest problem I had was not my gender. It was that I was running in the bluest of all blue states, in Maryland. And so I think that probably was the deal-killer. But I do think that, you know, this whole question about are women as stable - I'm a little older now. So, you know, it isn't the monthly problem people question about, but, you know, whether or not you're post-menopausal and you might be - have hormonally imbalanced.
These are the kinds of things we have always heard. And I do think that, as I say, though, that this is changing a bit today and that we - you know, no one would dare make such a comment about a candidate running today because we are used to seeing women do the biggest of jobs and the most important jobs.
We no longer, you know, sit around thinking that somehow women's brains are not capable of being able to deal with complexity or that we're going to be breaking down into tears or, you know, be emotionally imbalanced at any time in our lives.
CONAN: And Rebecca Traister, in that context, it was interesting to go back to the Hillary Clinton phone call at midnight ad during the campaign, where she was saying she was the one you should trust to be answering the crisis phone in the White House in the middle of the night.
TRAISTER: Yes, well, that was also part of Hillary's sort of tough-guy strategy, which was a sort of old mode of communicating power if you're a woman, which was to sort of try to pass as a man and emphasize your brawny bona fides over everything else.
But I would say that it wasn't just Palin who exploded that old conventional wisdom. Hillary did it, too. And her campaign evolved. She started out that way. She kept trying that tack. And she is a naturally tough person. She is a model of a tough politician, a deeply competent, tough politician.
But she also, as her campaign went on, became - came more into herself as a woman. It wasn't that she was flying a feminist flag until actually her moment of concession, when she gave that 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling speech.
But she did really embrace a fuller version of herself. She got much more confident in presenting herself as a woman, as a history-maker, as she was, and as many people were not acknowledging her as.
She came into herself in that way, and I think that in itself was one of the first explosions of 2008.
I'm also really interested in what Arnie just said about how it was a gift that that guy asked her about her regular problem...
ARNESEN: It was. Yes, it was.
TRAISTER: ...because this is so much of - when we have these conversations and people say oh, but look at the sexism we're hearing. We're still hearing people call other candidate prostitutes and talk about their clothes. And all this is true.
But these things, the fact that we're having these conversations and pointing out the sexism, and the fact that you tell the story about the guy asking you about your regular problem, the fact that there is a discussion about the sexism in the media, that it was foremost in our minds when Hillary Clinton was running, when Sarah Palin was running, that we're talking about it now with regard to these midterm candidates, this is actually - it's the ugly stuff, the disheartening stuff, the maddening stuff - that discussing it is the only way to move through it.
If we're not acknowledging that these attitudes are out there, that the gendered resistance exists and is why we haven't, for example, had a female president in 220-plus years of American history, why we only have 17 percent of Congress female, it's because of attitudes like this.
And actually, the expression of them through terrible instances of sexism is not a step backwards. We're lifting a curtain on those attitudes and beginning the necessary, if painful, conversation about them - sharpening our sensitivity and our vocabulary. And that's how we're moving forward and making things better - slowly, you know? But that's exactly what needs to happen. This is all in its own way, a rather depressing gift.
CONAN: Arnie Aniston(ph), thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it. Bye-bye.
ANISTON: You're welcome, Neal. Bye-bye.
CONAN: And, Linda Chavez, I want to return to you for a moment. And that is the question - in the last two election cycles, in 2008 and in 2006, a lot of Republican candidates, well, particularly, those in marginal districts had just a terrible time, and the wipeout that occurred over those two election cycles, actually, opened up a lot of opportunities. There were chances for women to step into and run for congressional seats and Senate seats, that might not have been available a few years ago.
CHAVEZ: Well, that's right. You know, there was a time that when we used to talk about gender gap, that we talked about it exclusively in partisan terms. I remember, you know, the expression was used often when I was working for President Reagan in the White House, and there was some concern that the president was going to have a gender gap in 1984. And we, you know, used to think of gender as always working best for Democrats.
Well, I think, now we see that there are lots of very strong women running in the Republican Party, as well as the Democratic Party, and there are going to be - if this election goes as we expect, there are going to be some new faces in the Republican Party, and they're going to be feminine faces.
So I don't think we, any longer, you know, just think of women candidates - think of them as liberal and think of them as Democrats. I think we, now, understand that women are represented in both parties and, frankly, have a chance to emerge.
I was in New Mexico earlier this summer, campaigning for Susana Martinez, who will be the first woman governor of the state of New Mexico if the election turns out...
CONAN: The way it looks now.
CHAVEZ: ...but there would be a woman governor either way, because she's running against another woman, but, you know, it's - this is a big change.
CONAN: We're talking with Linda Chavez, who's now chairman of the Virginia- based Center for Equal Opportunity; with Rebecca Traister, author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for Women;" and with Emily Bazelon, who's a senior editor at Slate magazine. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION which is coming to you from NPR News.
And let's go to Carol(ph). Carol with us from Orlando.
CAROL: Hi, Neal. Wonderful show, thank you.
CONAN: Thank you.
CAROL: I ran in 1984 in the Democratic primary for U.S. Congress against an 18- year incumbent named Bill Chapel. And the first time we were on the stage together, he - you know, the incumbent gets to speak last, so the runner doesn't - the competition doesn't get to rebut. He said - his first line was if this were a beauty pageant, I would lose. And the audience the first time he did it kind of snickered. Second time he did it, to the audience's credit, they did not say a thing. There was dead silence. He met dead silence. And that was the last time he used that line.
Now, I did not win, but I did get about 39 percent of the vote against him. And at the end, at the very end of the campaign that summer - that was the Geraldine Ferraro summer, also - he had threatened a radio station, a local radio station at Daytona Beach, that if they covered me, that he would be - see that they got fired and removed. So there was some threat to him. But that just shows you how much things have changed over the years, even though we still, I think, have sexism in many forms. It was so blatant that time, and, of course, I couldn't say anything because I didn't have a chance to talk after he spoke. But the audience, to their credit, took him on that second time. And it didn't happen again.
CONAN: And thank you very much for the call, Carol.
CAROL: You're welcome.
CONAN: Emily Bazelon, though, I wanted to ask you, in that circumstance you've written about candidates, women candidates who take umbrage.
BAZELON: Yeah, this is a successful strategy for women candidates, it seems. There is research showing that when male candidates make sexist remarks as a way of going after their female opponents, that it works. The female opponent, you know, lose standing with voters. However, if the women bite back and point out that, you know, being called an ice queen or compared to a prostitute is sexist and out of bounds, then the voters come back to them.
And so this has really played out well, I think, for Meg Whitman in this election season. The remark by Jerry Brown's campaign aide that Rebecca referred to earlier came up at a debate that Brown and Whitman had. And Brown got kind of defensive and prickly. He didn't give a kind of straightforward simple apology. And Whitman took umbrage on behalf of women everywhere. Now, she's still behind in the polls. She may not win the race, but, you know, as a viewer, I certainly understood, as a woman, why she was taking him on in the way she did.
CONAN: And let's go now to Connie(ph). And Connie is with us from Cincinnati.
CONNIE: Hi, how are you?
CONAN: Very well, thank you.
CONNIE: I wanted to call to let you know I'm running for the statehouse here in Ohio. I'm actually a first-term incumbent, and I'm being challenged by the founder of our Cincinnati Tea Party. I'm an Air Force veteran. I'm very, very proud of my service, and I talk about it a lot. And in my first term in the statehouse, I worked a lot on veterans issues. It's one of my signature things that I worked on. But over the summer this year, beginning on rightwing blogs, have been a lot of comments about my military service, particularly, at the medals that I would wear.
Sometimes, I'd put on my medals and some commemorative medals as well on civilian clothes, which we we're encouraged to do by the VA. But a lot of men took exception to that. They - in fact, one even called me and told me I was an embarrassment; that I was lying about my service, I was lying about what medals I earned, I couldn't possibly have earned those medals. And, you know, at first I laughed because it was just such a preposterous idea. But then I found it offensive, not just to me, but to all veterans. That just 'cause you're a woman or a veteran, people can just say and just accuse you of lying. The most interesting sexist remarks I saw were the local, political rag that a column headlined, Connie Pillich has an impressive rack.
CONAN: Ouch. Aw. Oh. That's a...
PILLICH: What do you think of that?
CONAN: That's over the line, Connie. No question about that. Well...
PILLICH: I mean, on the one hand, I was, you know, glad they thought I was a lot younger than I am. But, you know, it's really - it's only meant in one way, and it was disgusting. And it was really offensive to our veterans, to choose to pick on me.
CONAN: Connie, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.
PILLICH: All right. See you.
CONAN: And we thank our guests, Linda Chavez, Rebecca Traister and Emily Bazelon. I appreciate your time today. Coming up, NPR announced late last night that it's terminated its contract with senior news analyst Juan Williams, a former host of this program. We'll hear reaction next. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.