When redistricting forced Michigan’s two Democratic representatives, Lynn Rivers and John Dingell, to face off in a primary, women’s groups rushed to back Rivers.
But although she was a popular legislator, she was trounced by 76-year-old Dingell, the "dean" of the House. He has held his seat since 1955 and is its most senior member.
Rivers was an obvious choice for women’s organizations like NOW and Emily’s List: pro-choice, pro-gun control, female. Dingell, considered a fairly liberal Democrat, voted for a ban on partial birth abortions, opposes gun control, and was the wrong gender for increasing the number of women in Congress.
But in a year being heralded as a second "year of the woman" because of the number of women running for governor, have women finally arrived enough politically to render the gender agenda moot? Is the gender agenda a feminist anacronysm that is getting in the way of women’s organizations strategically aligning themselves with likely winners?
According to women’s political groups on both sides of the ideological aisle, it is still extremely important to elect women to office, and still extremely difficult to do so. An interview with the head of Emily’s List, a political action committee that exclusively supports pro-choice, Democratic candidates, and with the president of the National Federation of Republican Women, who traditionally backs the party’s candidates, revealed many shared views and concerns on women in office: mainly, a truly representative democracy should accurately reflect the population.
"You need a balance. One group should not dominate society," said Heidi Smith, president of the NFRW.
"When women are left out, we lose some very important perspectives on issues," said Ellen Malcolm, executive director of Emily’s List.
And the concerns were the same: the challenge of finding strong women candidates who can anchor viable campaigns; the gap in fundraising abilities between men and women; the need to bring in new blood.
"For us opportunity is the big issue. We’re trying to put newcomers in top office," Malcolm said. "We’re always looking for open seats. Ninety-eight percent of incumbents are re-elected. When we see an open seat, we’re right on it," she said.
"Women who are going against incumbents have a difficult time because of finances," Smith said. "Women don’t raise money the way men do," she said.
Another major concern is a disconnect between the women’s political establishment and the average women voter. Inside the establishment, an affiliation with, and support of, a women’s organization has proven to be crucial to the election of a woman candidate, according to a study by the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University. But out in the voting public, where women make up a 56 percent majority of voters, the minority of women voted into office suggests that women aren’t voting for other women.
The argument that women should be elected to office because they are women, or that women have an obligation to support women candidates, smacks to many as an outdated feminist remnant. But Democrat and Republican, liberal or conservative, women political leaders fear that women are still losing votes because they are women.
Smith said she is not very optimistic about women’s chances this election because the issues voters are concerned with – homeland security, military defense, for example –are issues voters associate with men.
"The biggest challenge is public perception and education. The public perception of women versus men has to be changed," Smith said. For example, she said, people perceive homeland security as a man’s job. "But the problem with homeland security has been organization. If you gave that job to five women it would be done in five days. But the perception is that men are tough and won’t crack under pressure."
This is after voters have had two years to watch Condoleezza Rice serve as National Security Advisor and hold her own along side Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. "We’re fighting the perception of women, not the reality," Smith said.
Malcolm said the problem is a growing disinterest and disengagement of women in politics, especially young women, who are part of a larger trend of younger people bowing out of the process. Research done into the voting patterns of young people found that young women had very little knowledge of or interest in current events.
"It’s a frightening trend for our democracy," Malcolm said. "It’s a problem so large, we don’t know how to fix it."
Some critics have argued that women have become alienated because women’s groups, and the candidates they support, have become too entangled with Democratic politics, or adhere to a pro-choice, anti-motherhood or liberal agenda that is no longer in sync with the average woman’s values. But Democratic women have been much more successful at getting elected than Republican women, and enjoy greater support from women’s groups, according to the CAWP study. In this election, Emily’s List backed 19 candidates for the House; 10 won their primaries, nine lost. In governor races, nine of the group’s 12 candidates won their primaries. (The three Senate candidates it backed were unopposed in their primaries.) Republican women, who may have offered women alternative views in a female candidate, fared much worse in their primaries, Smith said.
Smith dismisses the suggestion that women suffer because, Democrat or Republican, they are perceived as adhering to a set agenda of women’s issues. Instead, she credits the organizational and campaigning skills of Democratic women’s organizations, and says Republican women’s groups need to catch up.
The NFRW, Smith said, supports the best candidate, male or female, but has recently launched a major effort to put more of its resources into recruiting and grooming women to be top contenders.
"What we’re trying to achieve is bringing women on who are the best candidate. We’re trying to teach women to be the best candidate," Smith said.
Both Malcolm and Smith agreed that young women are crucial to the future of women in politics. According to the CAWP study, women legislators are considerably older on average than their male colleagues, with the majority coming from traditional women’s fields such as teaching, and having delayed their political careers until after they raised their families. There’s a generation of women out there who have had careers in business and finance, as entrepreneurs and executives, who have served in the military, and who do not see career and family as mutually exclusive goals. They could do much for vanquishing lingering misperceptions.
But they're also busy juggling those careers and families. One problem has yet to be solved: How do you get them to run?