By MARSHA MERCER
Commentators are trumpeting a “Year of the Woman!” in politics. Again.
This has less to do with the fact that several high-profile women won in Tuesday’s primaries than with the news media’s penchant for hanging labels on events. Not by chance have scandals since the 1970s been known as a –gate. It gives the news an easy story line.
The Year of the Woman recurs fairly regularly – see 1984, 1992 and 2008. Sometimes, there’s the Year of the Man – see Angry White. It’s always the Year of the Almighty Dollar, but you knew that.
For a while, 2010 looked like the year of the tea party activist, but a consensus is gathering around the women. Why?
Women no longer need their own political year. Women candidates generally avoid playing the gender card. It feels wrong to regard them as a surprising, new flavor of ice cream.
A woman’s political year is “so yesterday!” Unfortunately, “so yesterday!” is how would-be Republican senator Carly Fiorina of California described the hair of her opponent, the incumbent Democratic senator, Barbara Boxer. Fiorina was about to do a post-primary TV interview and thought the mic was off. Imagine that could happen.
OK, some things don’t change. The question is whether we now can retire the woman’s year cliché along with outmoded meow moments about hairstyles. And, enough already of speculation about Sarah Palin’s possible breast implants.
For evidence that women can play hard-ball politics, consider South Carolina. State Rep. Nikki Haley survived a racial slur and rumors of extramarital affairs to best three male opponents in the Republican primary for governor. She faces a run-off election June 22.
Currently, 90 women serve in Congress – 17 in the Senate and 73 in the House. The Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Center reports that 72 women hold statewide elected executive posts, and women make up 24 percent of the members of state legislatures.
It’s not parity, nor are we reliving 1992. That “year of the woman” followed the televised hearings of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in which there were no women on the Senate Judiciary Committee. The number of women in the Senate jumped from two to six after that election.
Two women justices sit on the Supreme Court, and a third awaits confirmation. A woman is speaker of the House. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright likes to tell a story about women’s progress and attitudes of a younger generation.
A couple of years ago, Albright’s youngest granddaughter, who’s now 8, turned to her mother, Albright’s daughter, and asked what the big deal was about Grandma Maddie’s having been secretary of state.
“It’s a girl’s job, isn’t it?” the girl asked.
Albright served as the first woman secretary of state from 1997 to 2001. Condoleezza Rice became the first African American and Republican woman secretary of state in 2005, and Hillary Clinton took the job last year.
Last fall, when Albright told the story at Harvard, she said she hopes we do have a man as secretary of state again sometime. “The question is whether a man can be secretary of state,” she said. Good one.
Senator, representative and governor are far from “girls’ jobs” yet, but nobody thinks they’re reserved for boys any more. The White House may have eluded Hillary Clinton in 2008, but her dogged pursuit of the Democratic presidential nomination led John McCain to pluck Palin from obscurity in Alaska as the first Republican woman vice presidential candidate. Palin, who endorsed Haley and Fiorina, may be gearing up for a presidential run.
Gender politics are not on the radar screen this year. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark.., survived a tough primary battle that tested the power of the incumbency and the clout of labor unions, which supported her opponent.
In Nevada, Republican Sharron Angle, a tea party-endorsed activist who is running against incumbent Sen. Harry Reid, has called for privatizing Social Security, eliminating the education department and dumping nuclear waste in her state.
In California, which has had two women senators since 1993, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Fiorina won the GOP Senate primary as an outsider and tough business person. Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman whipped Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner in the Republican gubernatorial primary. To do so, billionaire Whitman spent nearly $80 million, much of it her own money.
It would be so yesterday to think of this as just another “year of the woman” in politics.
© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.