Back Channels: A rightward sequel to Year of the Woman?
There are echoes of 1992, also a change election, but don't get carried away with the imagery.
'In this season of discontent, it will be women who can transform the national rage and demoralization into hope."
Sounds like a potential campaign slogan for Meg Whitman, the newly anointed Republican gubernatorial candidate in California. Or Carly Fiorina, now the Golden State's GOP Senate candidate. Or Nikki Haley, who won the most votes in South Carolina's Republican primary for governor.
Actually, it's a line from a column written for this page by Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women. Publication was on May 13, 1992 - in YOW, the Year of the Woman.
YOW is on people's minds after last week's primaries featuring Whitman, Fiorina, and Haley. And Sharron Angle, who will take on Sen. Harry Reid in Nevada. And hundreds of other Republican female candidates.
Will this be a sequel with a rightward twist? As in, YOW II: Rise of the Conservatives?
Clearly it's a different time. There was a recession then, but nothing to equal today's problems. And that era's war in Iraq was mercifully brief. One common thread, though, is anger.
Then, all the rage was about - as Ireland put it - "the nomination of Clarence Thomas [to the Supreme Court] and the horrid treatment of Anita Hill by the Senate Judiciary Committee - comprised of 14 white males." (Two of those guys were Joe Biden and Arlen Specter.)
Stories of the time say the committee hearings outraged women and "galvanized" them to seek office. They were sick of being on the outside, ignored by out-of-touch, nonresponsive incumbents.
Those times were "vastly, vastly different," the current president of NOW, Terry O'Neill, told me last week. "That was really a moment when women claimed their power. Women were indignant about the trashing of a woman who had dared to come forward and tell the truth about Clarence Thomas."
In contrast, O'Neill said, this year "an enormous number of women are running who are not friendly to women's equality and are not supporters of women's rights."
That's one side. Sarah Palin, whose endorsement boosted Fiorina, Haley, and others she has dubbed "mama grizzlies," has said she sees an "emerging, conservative, feminist identity" - not at all what the boosters of the first YOW had in mind.
Then - as now - one concern was the low numbers of women in elected office. In 1992, 30 women served in Congress - two in the Senate and the rest in the House. Today, there are 90 women in Congress - 17 in the Senate and 73 in the House. Of that number, Republicans hold 21 seats - four in the Senate and 17 in the House. (These statistics and more can be found at the Center for American Women in Politics website, www.cawp.rutgers.edu.)
No one was calling '92 the Year of the Liberal Woman, but that view dominated. Ten of 11 Senate hopefuls that year were Democrats, as were 71 of 108 House candidates. The bulk of the coverage went to liberals: Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein in California, Carol Moseley Braun in Illinois, Patty Murray in Washington, and Lynn Yeakel, who challenged Specter in Pennsylvania.
Hoping to correct that ongoing imbalance is Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a fund-raising organization for pro-life candidates that emerged in reaction to the first YOW.
"It became clear that we had to create a machine for pro-life women running for office," Dannenfelser says.
What began as a start-up in Dannenfelser's home has grown to the point that she expects to raise $12 million for candidates this year from the group's 280,000 members and activists. They raised $7 million in '08, she says.
She credits President Obama for that recent growth, particularly the abortion planks of health-care legislation, which outraged conservatives and - shades of '92 - galvanized women to run for office. SBA List and others were ready to help with fund-raising, and, unlike in the past, there was a strong farm team of female candidates to back. For example, Whitman and Fiorina were CEOs. Haley and Angle have legislative experience.
The money and solid candidates are essential. Anger can be a catalyst but isn't enough to sustain a movement or a campaign. A single social issue might motivate some voters but won't necessarily inspire others who are more worried about their jobs and the economy.
So while the comparisons between YOW I and II are inevitable, don't get carried away with the imagery. Ireland was wrong. Women didn't "transform the national rage and demoralization into hope." They did OK in '92, but just two years later, voters sent a very different group of women and men to Congress. The next transformation will certainly include some of the GOP women in the spotlight last week, but they won't be alone.