The Year of the New Woman

Primaries were held in 11 states on Tuesday, and in the major races, six highly visible women challenged incumbents or vied for open seats.

What's different about women politicians in 2010 isn't just that there are more Republican women (in the past two decades, female politicians at the national and state levels were more likely to be Democrats than Republicans) but also that these women are coming to politics and presenting themselves as candidates in a whole new way. Women traditionally entered politics through recruitment and with subsequent support of organizations and party officials, or they became interested in politics after careers in the health and education fields, according to a 2009 report from the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. In 2008 the most common profession for women in state legislature was former school teacher (18 percent). In comparison, for men it was lawyer (14 percent).

Women candidates often cited one or two policy concerns that were very important in their decision to vie for office, and Democratic women were more likely to receive the institutional support of women's, professional, or child-advocacy groups in conducting their campaign.

This year, many conservative women come from business backgrounds and do not necessarily have the support of the Republican Party. They jumped into high-level races based on their personal and professional skills rather than working their way up through traditional channels. Many of these high-profile women candidates aren't running on the issues women, in particular, care about or presenting themselves as uniquely able to handle such concerns. They're just selling themselves.

The path from the business world to a high-level political race is one that men have perfected, especially in a state like New Jersey where -- consider Frank Lautenberg and Jon Corzine -- it's almost the norm. It's a new path for women, though. In California’s primary Tuesday night, two prominent technology businesswomen, Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, won their bids for the Republican nominations for governor and senator, respectively. Whitman, an early executive at eBay, has a master of business administration from Harvard and is touting her business acumen as a remedy for California’s budget mess. Fiorina, a former CEO of Hewlett-Packard who presided over the company at a time when its stock price halved, nevertheless also promotes her business experience as the kind that California needs to send to Washington, D.C. She will face off incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer in the fall for the Senate seat.

Being experienced businesswomen and political neophytes is at the heart of Whitman's and Fiorina's appeal to an electorate frustrated and disenchanted with the economic and political climate. The same is also true for Linda McMahon in Connecticut, a former World Wrestling Entertainment executive who is the likely Republican nominee against Democrat Richard Blumenthal to replace Sen. Chris Dodd.

None of these women is as socially conservative as Sarah Palin, whose visibility as the Republican vice-presidential candidate in 2008 probably helped spur the rise of conservative women this year. But Palin has endorsed a number of female conservatives, including Nikki Haley for governor of South Carolina. Haley is an accountant who touts her work for her parents' clothing company, a small business she helped grow. Unlike Whitman and Fiorina, she has previous political experience (she is in her third term as a state representative), but this is her first run for statewide office. Also like Palin, Haley has young children, whereas many other women still wait until their children are older to run for political office. (In the Rutgers study, 14 percent of women legislators had a child under age 18 in 2008, compared to 22 percent of men serving in legislatures.) "Sarah Palin has really helped change the landscape," says Susan Carroll, a political-science professor and senior scholar at the Rutgers Center. "If she was able to do it with five kids, that changes stereotypes." Add the potential sex scandals, and Haley seems a conventional candidate regardless of her gender. After placing first in Tuesday's results, Haley is now in a two-way runoff for the Republican nomination.

Before 1992, dubbed "the year of the woman" after four women were elected to the Senate in a single year, more Republican women held state and national office than Democratic women, says Jennifer Lawless, a professor of political science and director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University. That year, sexual harassment in the workplace, highlighted by the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas case, and family and medical leave became big political issues. Democrats grabbed onto them, thereby courting female votes and candidates for a generation.

The female politician of 2010, however, doesn't trumpet the issues that disproportionately affect women. But that doesn't mean she won't, in the end, make policies influenced by her experiences as a woman. Debbie Walsh, director of Rutgers center, pointed to the example of Paula Hawkins, a conservative Republican who served in the Senate from Florida from 1981 to 1987. She noticed that the tax credit for child care appeared only on the long forms, and many eligible families who filled out the shorter forms were missing out. "Women with different political ideologies will come in, but there is no doubt they've had a different life experience," than men, Walsh says.

But just because female politicians have championed progressive-friendly policies regardless of party, doesn’t mean we can expect that of the Republican women running this year, Lawless warns. In the past, Republican women tended to be more moderate or liberal than their male counterparts, but, Lawless says, voting patterns of Republican women in the last two Congresses showed that they were completely in line with their party's mainstream and didn't vote differently on issues women care about. Some of this year's Republican women are very conservative. That may end up a loss for the causes and policies about which progressive women care. "There are a ton of Democratic men out there who can better represent traditional women's issues than Republican women," Lawless says. "The kinds of issues the Democratic Party has really tried to highlight -- I don't think that just electing any woman is going to forward that agenda."

Both Walsh and Carroll noted that women tend to have a hard time getting past a more conservative Republican primary electorate, but when they do, they tend to do better in swing districts than Republican men. With so many races up for grabs this year, it could be a good year for women. "Liberal people have to say, 'If the conservatives are in power, is it better to have someone who's going to think at least from a woman's perspective about some of these issues, and maybe introduce some of these things more responsive to women?'" Carroll says. "Many of us would say it's better to have Republican women there than to not have them there."

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