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Archive for Friday, July 9, 2004

Public open mind to female candidates

July 9, 2004

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— Before I raise my glass to John Edwards, may I take a moment to salute a little known "mentioner" on a small island in Maine. Midway through the Fourth of July parade, behind the fire trucks and before the clowns, there was a family float bearing the message: Woman Veep in 2004.

Were it not for this one handmade poster, I suspect that the only "mention" of a woman on the Democratic ticket this year would have been someone "mentioning" how no woman had been seriously "mentioned."

This is not to complain about the pick for vice president. John Edwards is as engaging an Energizer Bunny of a candidate as ever refused to play hardball in the primaries. Nor is it a riff against John Kerry, who checked his ego at the door to run with a charismatic partner. Besides, who in my generation could dislike a man described as "young" at 51?

But July 12 marks the 20th anniversary of the goosebump day Geraldine Ferraro stood up and said: "American history is about doors being opened." The choice of the first woman was one part inspiration, one part perspiration, one part desperation. The inspiration to pick the lippy, savvy congresswoman from Queens, the perspiration of women's groups, and the desperation of Walter Mondale. Ferraro was the walking, talking "Hail Mary pass" in the race against the Gipper.

Well, we didn't expect a victory in 1984. But we also didn't expect to go 20 more years without a woman on the national ticket, except perhaps Glenn Close in "Air Force One." As Marie Wilson of The White House Project says, "we're still working hard to go back to the future."

I've been collecting theories on why no woman was chosen or seriously mentioned in 2004.

There is the Woman Equals Liberal Theory. Picking any woman is automatically seen as going to the left even if she's in the center.

Then there is the Vice Commander in Chief Theory. Women still have a tougher time in tough times. Terrorism is not a pink alert.

Next, there is the Trickle in the Pipeline Theory. Not only are there fewer women senators and governors to pick from than men, but the overwhelming majority of all political candidates under 35 are still male.

There is also the Suck It Up Theory. For Democrats this year, winning is everything. The folks who most want a woman have nowhere else to go anyway.

And finally there is the Hillary Theory. Those who care most about women candidates and are sucking it up this year (see above) are putting their eggs in the Hillary for President basket for 2008 or 2012.

I am happy to expound on any of these theories, but as the 20th anniversary approaches, I remember the framed poster of "The Women's Campaign Game" that I first saw on Ferraro's office wall. One square read: "You're twice as qualified as your opponent. You've worked twice as hard. The two of you are now dead even. Move to his square."

At the risk of sounding optimistic, the game isn't that stacked anymore. A recent Annenberg poll suggests that party may trump gender in elections. In a matchup, Hillary Clinton did just as well as John Kerry against George Bush. Elizabeth Dole did just as well as George Bush against John Kerry.

In a poll for The White House Project, a hypothetical woman senator with foreign affairs experience did better in the race for president than a male. And last year, a Gallup Poll showed that the number of folks under 65 who'd never vote for "a woman" for president dwindled down to about 10 percent.

Finally, we're moving from talking about "a woman" to talking about individual women. We still rank 59th out of 176 countries in the number of women holding elected office -- right up there with Slovakia -- but we can worry somewhat less about a level playing field and more about getting women to play.

Let's go back to the man of the hour. As Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics, says, "John Edwards earned the right to be on the list by putting his hat in the ring. But the fact that this guy runs for president after not even serving one term in the Senate goes back to the idea that men feel entitled to be president while women hold back." He ran for president; he even "ran" for vice president.

So maybe women don't need more time; we need more risk-takers. Twenty years after the doors opened, the people may be ahead of the politicians, even the female politicians. You can find signs in the oddest places. Even in an island parade, right between the fire trucks and the clowns.




Ellen Goodman is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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