New book by nine female senators offers tips on changing gender stereotypes, bending biases

Tuesday, July 25th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON – After winning a Senate seat in 1993, Kay Bailey Hutchison was greeted with a newspaper headline that began "Former University of Texas Longhorn Cheerleader Elected." The reference to Ms. Hutchison's college pompom days was no different from the time Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., was asked how she found the time to do the dishes in the midst of running for political office. They said they felt devalued, just as their Washington colleague Patty Murray, a Democrat, was derided as "just a mom in tennis shoes" who couldn't make a difference.

These stories are part of a book being released Tuesday by the nine women serving in the Senate. It's hitting the bookstands on the eve of national political conventions that will be partly aimed at attracting female voters.

Ms. Hutchison, the first woman elected to the Senate from Texas, said the book's goal is to draw a road map for women as they try to break barriers in politics, business and other fields. The book also includes a list of tips for female candidates, including such things as not focusing on issues that are solely based on gender and not taking criticism personally.

"Throughout my life, one of my obstacles has been attempts to trivialize me or underestimate me," Ms. Hutchison said in an interview, recalling how she has been told she is "too soft," "not tough," "not smart," and a "quintessential, perennial cheerleader."

"Being in a leadership role is not easy," she continued. "You have to learn how to deal with the issues that come to you in a professional way. And it can be done."

The book, Nine and Counting, is the brainchild of Ms. Hutchison and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., dean of Senate women and self-appointed mentor to her colleagues. Proceeds from the book will be donated to the Girl Scouts. The nine female senators are Ms. Hutchison; Ms. Boxer; Ms. Murray; Ms. Mikulski; Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; Mary Landrieu, D-La.; Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark.; and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both Republicans from Maine.

The women co-wrote the book with Catherine Whitney, who previously helped former Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro with her family memoir, and allowed the writer to watch them in action at home and on Capitol Hill.

The senators even invited Ms.Whitney inside The Monocle, a venerable Washington restaurant steps from the Capitol, where the women periodically dine together to catch up and talk shop. The senators insist that they do not have a "women's" agenda, but do work together on key issues.

Ms. Hutchison and Ms. Mikulski teamed up a few years ago on legislation that would allow stay-at-home spouses to contribute to tax-free retirement accounts. And Ms. Feinstein and Ms. Boxer regularly work with Ms. Hutchison on issues affecting the U.S.-Mexico border.

Each woman serving in the Senate brought with her experience in government, academia, business or elected office. But each repeatedly noted that she faces double standards and bias where men do not.

Ms. Landrieu recounted the time she became so incensed at a newspaper column criticizing Ms. Lincoln, who campaigned in 1996 while her twin boys were still in diapers, for being an irresponsible mother.

Ms. Landrieu, the mother of a young boy and girl, shot back with a column of her own, "Mothers Make Good Senators, Too." And she used her father, a politician and government official, as an example.

"No critic ever questioned Dad's capability of being a good father to his nine children simply because he was mayor of New Orleans," she wrote.

Recent surveys have indicated that male and female voters are willing to elect a woman for president. Almost half of those surveyed by Ladies' Home Journal and, a Web site geared to women, said they believe that it will happen in the next four to 12 years. There are some who believe that a woman should first serve as governor or senator before moving to the White House. But the gains by women in those posts have only been inching upward.

For example, if all the women who have either been appointed or elected to the Senate sat in the ornate chamber today, they would fill less than one-third of the seats.

Since 1922, when Democrat Rebecca Felton of Georgia was appointed to serve out the term of her late husband, there have been 27 women in the Senate. According to congressional records, one-third of those were appointed to fill a seat and some went on to win election on their own.

Ms. Hutchison, Ms. Snowe and Ms. Feinstein are up for re-election this year, and analysts favor each to come back for another six-year term.

Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, suggests that the three women seeking to come back in January have reached a level of acceptance by their peers.

"The Senate is tolerant of a remarkable number of styles and approaches," he said. "There are women who become part of the club readily and others, by reason of their personalities, that just don't. A lot depends on what that person wants to do."

While Hillary Rodham Clinton is perhaps the most famous of this year's Senate candidates, there are not many more like her campaigning across the country. Depending on what happens in primaries and the general election, there could be as many as five new female senators next year – all Democrats. The current breakdown is six Democrats and three Republicans.

"These are statewide races. It's expensive," said Erica Henri, political director of the nonpartisan Women's Campaign Fund. "And people have a higher vision of what the Senate is. It's the house where you have the elder statesmen."

The women, however, do not like having labels or slogans thrust upon them when more than one is running for the Senate. In the book, Ms. Boxer notes that she did not like the inference that she first won her seat in 1992 because it was dubbed by the media as the "Year of the Woman."

"Year of the Woman makes it sound like the Year of the Caribou or Year of the Asparagus," Ms. Mikulski once said. "We're not a fad, fancy or a year."

For some female senators, the image of the Senate as a stuffy Old Men's Club is slowly changing. Remarks about their preference for brightly colored suits in the spring and summer or even for wearing pants instead of skirts and dresses are waning. And a few years ago, a women's restroom was finally installed near the Senate floor.

Ms. Hutchison said she believes that the novelty of seeing a woman run for high elected office is wearing off. And that, she said, will benefit a new generation of female candidates.

"I don't think people are saying, 'I like her better, I think she has the best views, but I just don't think she can do the job,'" she said. "We're not being judged as women. We're being judged on what our views are and can we achieve what we said we're going to do."