Election 2000: The Year of the Working Woman

Working Woman magazine, November 1999

In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Elizabeth Hanford Dole wanders a summer fair on Fourth of July weekend, stepping around blankets and picnic baskets, coolers and baby strollers. As she stoops to greet the day-trippers camped in front of a shorefront concert stage, a quiet buzz begins to circulate through the crowd.

“Look who it is,” one woman whispers to her boys. “See that lady? She could be the next president of the United States.”

Before long, Dole becomes a pied piper of sorts, trailed by a bevy of women in their 30s and 40s, many with young daughters in tow. They want their daughters’ pictures taken with the candidate, and the Dole campaign, equipped with a Polaroid camera, is only too happy to oblige.

Sheila Marchese, a trim brunette in shorts and a tank top, explains that although she’s not really political, she’s thrilled by the Dole candidacy. It matters to her that Dole is a woman. “I think it’s awesome,” she says. Her 11-year-old daughter, Lisa, stands by her side, eyes as big as saucers as she watches Dole work the crowd. “I wanted to be the first woman president,” she says.

Outside the East Side Senior Center in Utica, New York, a raucous gathering awaits the emergence of Hillary Rodham Clinton from the third stop on her “listening tour” of the Empire State, where she is expected to launch a bid for the Senate. Though most of the heavily female crowd is there to welcome here, well-wishers compete for attention with protesters, most of whom are antiabortion, some of whom simply resent Clinton’s contemplation of a bid to represent a state in which she has never lived.

Inside, Clinton signs autographs after an hour-long question-and-answer session in which the senior citizens of Utica, a Rust Belt city that has seen better days, have held forth on issues ranging from Medicare to economic development. Grandmothers shove their granddaughters toward the First Lady, urging them to shake the hand of the woman who could be New York’s first female senator.

On the sidewalk across the street, a shouting match has erupted between a petite African-American woman and a beefy white man holding a sign that reads, “Listen, Hillary: Go Home!”

The woman, Betty Green, 41, is accompanied by her aunt, daughter and granddaughter. Melissa Green, a 22-year-old certified practical nurse, is firmly in her mother’s camp. Full of fire, Melissa hopes to make her way through the medical education system (next on the agenda is becoming a licensed practical nurse) and ultimately go to med school. For her, Clinton’s gender is crucial. “I think that a woman is more open to the opinions of others,” she says. “Only a woman can understand the situations of all people—being a mother, a wife, a career woman.”

The career woman. She may be the single most important constituent in the 2000 election cycles, though she is rarely mentioned by name. Instead, the rhetoric circles around her, relegating her to other demographic camps into which she may fall: soccer mom, baby boomer, and suburbanite, to name a few. Yet if you examine what is known about the agendas of the top contenders for national office—male and female—you’ll find the issues they tout score highly with career women, beginning with education and economic development. What’s more, because the career woman (as with women in general) has traditionally participated less in the political process than her male counterpart, she represents an untapped source for political fund-raising and organizing. All of which begs the question: Is Election 2000 the Year of the Working Woman?

“I think that’s right on,” says Anne Mosle, vice president for women’s policy and programs at the Center for Policy Alternatives, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. “And it’s especially true when you look at the working woman as an entrepreneur—and you can be an entrepreneur working within a structure—as women work both within the economic system and work at building a new one.”

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake concurs. She sees working women (especially married women with children) at the intersection of the most coveted voter groups: suburban voters, female voters, and swing voters.

“Fifty percent of the vote is in the suburbs now,” Lake notes—precisely where career women are likely to live. “An even higher proportion of the swing vote is there,” she continues. “And then it’s also a year when the gender gap will be very important.”

Over the past two election cycles, the gender gap has been a crucial factor, providing the margin of victory for both the last presidential and New York senatorial elections. In 1996, Bill Clinton and Bob Dole early broke even on the male vote (43 percent for Clinton, 44 percent for Dole), while Clinton enjoyed a 16-percent lead among women. In the 1998 Senate race, the results were even more stark. Incumbent Alfonse D’Amato, the Republican, lost among women by 19 percent to then-Representative Charles Schumer.

Yet the gender gap tells only part of the story of the Year of the Working Woman. The rest can be seen in the campaigns of our two most famous career woman candidates: Mrs. Clinton, the Democrat, and Mrs. Dole, the Republican.

Though pundits occasionally grouse that these women achieved their celebrity through marriage, there’s no refuting the claim that they both have careers they staked out on their own: Dole as a two-time cabinet secretary and former president of the American Red Cross, Clinton as an activist for a host of social issues and a lawyer who supported her family while her husband chased his political dreams (among other things).

Career women see themselves in the transitional figures of Clinton and Dole—women who’ve paid heavy dues in often hostile environments for their moments in the sun. They understand the dual role of spouse and power-house. Business-savvy, career women get that politics has become a market-driven as the rest of the culture, that it can’t hurt to bear a brand name. (Just look at the presidential candidates—Bush and Gore.)

None of this is lost on the former cabinet secretary or the First Lady, whose muted pantsuits mirror the uniform of today’s career woman. The issues most frequently addressed by both women speak loudly to working women, even if the pitch is less than explicit, for fear of alienating male voters. At a press conference announcing the formation of Clinton’s exploratory committee, Working Woman asked the First Lady whether the topics of her listening sessions with upstate New Yorkers—education health care, and economic development—were chosen for their resonance with women voters.

“These are issues that I have worked on and been concerned about all of my adult life,” she said. Specifically, she noted that her activism on behalf of children and families dates back to her law school days and cited the successful education reform effort she initiated in 1983 while first lady of Arkansas. She’s had ample opportunities, she continued, “to think hard about how we create good jobs and how we provide people the skills in a changing economy to be able to take those jobs.”

Elizabeth Dole also dodged our question. “We’re delighted to have a lot of women supporters,” she explained during a brief break in a long day of campaigning, “but I’m not running because I’m a woman. And I really don’t want people to vote for me because I’m a woman; I want them to vote for met because I’m best qualified.” She went on to cite her “30 years’ experience in dealing with tough issues” and was quick to note that the Red Cross “would be number 600 on a “Fortune 600 list.” Still, when asked a month later to explain her surprisingly strong showing in this summer’s Iowa straw poll, Dole credited her “invisible army” of newly energized voters: women.

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