Looking for Parity: ‘The Year of the Woman’ Wears Thin

By Joe Grimm

EAST LANSING, Mich.—If we never again declared a “year of the woman,” Susan Goldberg, executive editor at Bloomberg News, would be happy.

We heard it after the 1992 election and are hearing it again this post-election season, 20 years later.

Goldberg oversees coverage of federal, state and local government across the country and has observations about who is running things. She shared those with journalism students at her alma mater, Michigan State University, where I teach.

These are excerpts from her talk:

“It was 1992. I remember going to the Republican convention in Houston and the Democratic convention in New York, as a 32-year-old editor working then for USA TODAY. There was constant talk of gender and politics. Everyone was buzzing about how badly the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee treated a law professor named Anita Hill, who said that U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her. There was discussion of how the workplace needed to be more family friendly and that the criminal justice system had to respond more urgently to domestic violence.

Susan GoldbergAnd it seemed the electorate heard this message.

The number of women in the Senate tripled overnight — to six — and female membership of the House went from 28 to 47.

“The commentators and pundits were all excited. I was, too. This was the election that was going to change everything! But some kept a cooler head:

‘Calling 1992 the Year of the Woman makes it sound like the Year of the Caribou or the Year of the Asparagus, ‘ Sen. Barbara Mikulski, of Maryland, grumbled at the time. ‘We’re not a fad, a fancy or a year.’

“Of course, Sen. Mikulski had that exactly right. Women, who made up 53 percent of the electorate this year, are nowhere near achieving parity in elected office, though we’ve seen a slow, steady progress in the last 20 years. Recently, we were able to celebrate passing the country of Turkmenistan in the percentage of female representatives elected on the national level. . . .

“But I’ve come to agree with Sen. Mikulski. despite this progress, I’m not excited to label any year ‘The Year of the Woman’ that isn’t close to representative parity. And in state legislatures — the pipeline of higher office — gains are extremely slow: Female representation stands at just 24 percent, three percentage points higher than two decades ago. For statewide elective office, it has risen just one percentage point in that time, to 23 percent. . . .

Here are the trends I’d highlight:

“The first is that the Republican Party has a women problem. This is true most famously in terms of the message that got sent to voters—remember the rape comments, and we’ll talk about those in a moment—but also, much less discussed, in terms of who the parties are sending to office . . .

“In short, the number of Democratic women in Congress increased and the number of Republican women declined. . . .

“The second issue this race highlighted was how the female candidates themselves are covered and treated. In some cases, we saw coverage that was pretty off-putting, and it may account for some women choosing to stay away from politics in the first place.

So how are female candidates portrayed? Karen Tumulty, a political reporter for The Washington Post, recently wrote:

“During the 2010 midterm elections, Speaker Nancy Pelosi was vilified in $65 million worth of Republican ads — 161,203 spots in all. The speaker was portrayed as, among other things, a cackling witch.

“In this year’s presidential campaign, Tumulty added, ‘Newsweek’s cover featured a close-up photo of Rep. Michele Bachmann that made her appear unhinged.’ And, “Although those in the Republican presidential field have taken plenty of out-of-the-mainstream positions on issues (remember Newt Gingrich’s talk of colonies on the moon?), the only woman in the race was asked on Fox News Sunday, ‘Are you a flake?’ . . . .

“In journalism, in addition to the usual issues of trying to combine your life with your job, I’ve always found the differing standards of acceptable behavior infuriating — how the man is hard-charging and the woman is hard to take; the man is passionate and the woman has PMS; the man is tough and the woman is rhymes, ironically enough, with witch. So we have to be nice — but not too nice! Speak up — but not too loudly! Take charge — but don’t be bossy! . . .

“So where does this leave us for the future?

“Believe it or not, I’m encouraged. Yes, progress is slow — sometimes we even go backwards. One of my reporters found the other day that with the larger number of women now in the Senate, we have almost caught up with the representation of women in the upper parliamentary house in Afghanistan.

“And yes, the sexism and double standards faced by working women in offices nationwide are just as prevalent if that office is on Capitol Hill — or if they’re trying to get there. . . .

“Siobhan Bennett is president of the Women’s Campaign Fund, a Washington group dedicated to increasing the number of women in elected office. She says of women: ‘They get voting, they get volunteering. But they are completely tone deaf when it comes to the two most powerful political avenues that they could exercise: They don’t give politically, compared to men. And they don’t run.’

“But they are giving more: women named individually or as part of a married couple accounted for 16.5 percent of the $272 million that the 100 biggest donors gave to political action committees in 2012 through October. Overall, about a third of contributors in 2012 federal elections are women. . . .

“Bobbie Kilberg was a co-chair of Romney’s fundraising in Washington, Virginia, Maryland and Delaware. ‘ The involvement of women in high levels of fundraising is strong and getting stronger each cycle,’ she said.

“And this pleases me, because I have faith in women, irrespective of party. I believe in women’s ability to learn practical lessons from their life experiences, to forge bonds with one-time adversaries to find solutions and to work — really, really, really hard.

“So was this the fabled ‘Year of the Woman?’ No, it wasn’t. Neither was 1992. And 2016 won’t be, either.

“In fact, labeling any one year the ‘Year of the Woman’ means that we still aren’t succeeding at achieving parity; it means electoral success is still a notable anomaly, rather than what it should be — normal.

“So here’s to the year when it won’t be called the ‘Year of the Woman’ — when half of all officeholders will be women, and no one will think there’s anything special about that at all.

Joe Grimm, a consultant and adjunct faculty member of the Freedom Forum Diversity Institute, recruited for the Detroit Free Press, Knight Ridder and Gannett from 1990 until 2008. He now teaches at the Michigan State University School of Journalism. He has run the JobsPage journalism careers site at www.jobspage.com since 1996. Questions about careers? Email Joe for an answer.

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