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A R T I C L E S* &* S P E E C H E S
POLITICS

Why Not Elizabeth Dole?
by Amelia Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner

*This piece was originally published in The Nation.

With an exploratory committee in place, Elizabeth Dole looks like she might be the first viable female candidate for President. Last month, she was named in Parade magazine as a winner in the Ms. Foundationís White House Project Ballot Box Initiative, a campaign designed to raise visibility of female leaders, brought to you by the creators of Take Our Daughters to Work Day.

Before feminists start dancing in the streets, itís worth remembering the Margaret Thatcher law: a tough broad can lead a big developed country and do absolutely nothing to improve the status of women or children. Thatcher began and ended her tenure with the same number of female MPs, welfare was slashed as were anti-discrimination laws, and she even cut the free milk program for public school children. The only women she paved the way for were the Spice Girls.

Although Thatcher did not distinguish herself as a feminist, she was one of a mere twenty-four female world leaders, according to Laura Lisswood of Harvardís John F. Kennedy School of Goverment and vice chairman of the Council of Women World Leaders. Lisswood traveled the world to interview these rare birds and returned home to report that the United States ranks thirty-ninth (out of 160 nations) in representation of women in elected positions. With this ammunition, Lisswood, together with Ms. Foundation president Marie Wilson and philanthropist Barbara Lee, created the White House Project. The three hoped to raise awareness around women's leadership and plow the way to the White House. But a funny thing happened on the way to Washington - feminist consciousness stayed home.

"We had to protect this project from the radical right," says Marie Wilson, and they feared that use of the "F" word could marginalize issues at the top of the national agenda for women. "We chose a strategy that actually bet on democracy," says Wilson. "That actually bet on people believing in the issues [feminists] have carried-how we educate our children, health care for young and old, and social security."

Yet in publicizing their ballot box initiative, the organizers eschewed grassroots activist networks (including Fund for a Feminist Majority and NOW), focusing instead on glossy mainstream media outlets. The magazines Jane, Parade, People, Latina and Glamour circulated a presidential ballot featuring twenty women identified by a group of scholars as being commander-in-chief material. Some candidates you might expect - Hillary Clinton, Christine Todd Whitman, and Elizabeth Dole. Others you might not: Mae Jameson, Angela Oh, Claudia Kennedy, and Judith Rodin. The obscurity of some was heightened by the fact that they were only identified by name, job title, and snapshot. Readers learned that Claudia Kennedy is a three-star general in the U.S. Army but not whether she supports abortions for service women. "In choosing women for the ballot, we looked at leadership skills and a record of accomplishment," read the project's speaking points, "not positions on specific issues" - ignoring the fact that even Miss America contestants are required to have platforms. "It's not about politics, it's about women's leadership," the press release proclaimed. Thus, gender was the only thing the "voters" needed to know in order to cast their ballot for their favorite woman.

Certainly, having as many women as men in office is one goal of feminism. However, the idea of a womenís movement heavy on visibility and lite on politics at this stage of the game is depressing - just the same old boysí network with a couple of coiffed red herrings in power suits.

Thus the White House Project illustrates a dilemma in modern feminism. There are those who believe that any woman who breaks the glass ceiling is inherently good for those trying to peel themselves off of the sticky floor. On the other side stand those who believe anyone we support for elective office should be pro-feminist - as in pro-choice, pro-welfare rights, pro-subsidized daycare, etc. A related dilemma involves the images women leaders choose to cultivate. Celinda Lake, a Washington-based Democratic pollster associated with the White House Project, argued that 1998 was a good year for women to win office, because the main issues were family values, the home, morality and trust. After all, aren't all women trustworthy homemakers with impeccable virtue?

But women can't ride this antiquated stereotype and at the same time fight it. Now that Elizabeth Dole is on her way to running, feminists have got to start struggling with the inherent conflict of voting for a woman with politics antithetical to feminism. The truth is that women do care about issues and they vote for candidates who are most likely to represent their values. Clinton is the first President who was elected with significant help from women. They chose him because of his stand on choice, his proposed national system of healthcare, his support of the Violence Against Women Act, and the Family Medical Leave Act - while subsequently protesting his capitulation on welfare and gay rights. Dole, who doesn't champion issues central to womenís lives, is unlikely to win support from women who backed Clinton for these reasons. It will be a struggle, too, for Dole to win over the ultra-right wing of the Republican Party. A GOP supporter in New Hampshire told the New York Times, "I don't believe a woman ought to be in that particular place of leadership - the Bible teaches us that women shouldn't have that authority over men." Ostensibly to avoid alienating the right, Dole has taken a stand on only two issues: tax "relief" and beefing up the war on drugs. On the litmus-test issue of choice, Dole is covering her bases. She is assertively pro-life except in cases of rape, incest, and endangered life of the motheró - ut she stops short of saying she would overturn Roe v. Wade.

Despite misgivings, the Ms. Foundation's Marie Wilson feels that Dole has opened the door for women to flood the election marketplace, and notes that Dole is "out there and for the first time no one giggled or is cynical." Her candidacy might be seen as a victory for PR campaigns like the White House Project, but her election would surely be a defeat for women. As far as the world taking Mrs. Dole seriously: no one laughed at Mrs. Thatcher, either.

  Amelia Richards, a contributing editor to Ms. Magazine, a co-founder of the Third Wave Foundation, and writer of the column Ask Amy, and Jennifer Baumgardner, a writer and editor, co-wrote the book Manifest, (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000).

 

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