The University Record, December 7, 1998

A woman president would change the ‘style and substance’ of government

By Mary Jo Frank
Office of Communications

The federal government would be much different—in style and substance—if a woman were elected president and women held a majority of seats in Congress, predicted several participants in the afternoon panel discussion at “Women in American Political Life: We’ve Come a Long Way—Maybe,” a Nov. 19 conference at the Michigan League Ballroom.

Hosted by the Gerald R. Ford Foundation and the Gerald R. Ford Library, the conference opened with a welcome by the nation’s 38th president and featured nationally prominent women discussing the history and future of women in politics.

Men and women have a different legislative style, and women prefer a consensus approach, said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who explained how she and four other women in the Texas Legislature worked in a bipartisan way to strengthen the state’s rape laws.

Dee Dee Myers, former press secretary to President Clinton, predicted that if women were to gain control of government overnight in 1998, the center of power would shift away from the federal government. “People would be going to Bill Gates for guidance about whether to bomb Saddam [Hussein],” Myers said.

The main difference would be one of style, said Ann Lewis, director of communications for Clinton, who predicted there would be fewer meetings and that those meetings would start on time and be conducted more efficiently. Women come to meetings with a checklist and want to get things done, she said. Women also bring different experiences and concerns to the table, so you might see different funding priorities, including an emphasis on women’s health concerns.

Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization of Women, said that if women were in control of the government the feminist movement suddenly would be advocating for more men in office. Women do vote differently, Ireland said, and in elective offices, the highest priorities for women are health, pro-choice and family planning issues, and concerns about violence against women.

Betsy DeVos, chair of the Michigan Republican State Committee, challenged the assumption that more women are needed in elective offices or that there is a women’s vote. DeVos, who began her political career as a volunteer on Ford’s 1976 campaign, said that because women differ by age, marital and family status, and life experiences, they don’t vote as a block. She thinks it is more important to have an elected official representing her views than to have a man or woman in office.

Sheila Burke, executive dean at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and former chief of staff to Sen. Bob Dole, said voter polls show women candidates are viewed as more emotional and compassionate, and weaker in crisis management and on some issues, including crime. Burke said voters also inherently trust women more than men.

Carl Anthony, author and biographer, moderated both the morning and afternoon panels. The morning panel discussion featured a historical perspective on women in politics. Panelists were Liz Carpenter, press secretary and staff director for Lady Bird Johnson; Margaret Heckler, former member of Congress and U.S. ambassador to Ireland; Martha Keys, former member of Congress and a member of the Social Security Advisory Board; Helen Thomas, White House correspondent for United Press International; and Anne Wexler, assistant to President Jimmy Carter and a senior adviser to the Clinton transition team.

Carpenter recalled the founding of the Women’s Political Caucus on a steamy July day in 1971 and the group’s decision to support the Equal Rights Amendment. Her role was to handle the press and get newspaper coverage. “Fortunately it was a slow news day, and we were the hottest thing in D.C.,” said Carpenter, who added: “We do stand on the shoulders of each other. We are a working network. The Ford administration believed in the Equal Rights Amendment and the first lady held the banner high and didn’t mind talking about choice. In the new millennium, men won’t be afraid of strong women, and women won’t be afraid to put a meal on the table.”

Heckler, who recalled when women could not get credit in their own names, said things changed dramatically with the Equal Credit Act. Always concerned about rights and justice, Heckler said that for her that includes advocacy on behalf of the unborn. The ambassador called the anti-abortion movement “the greatest civil rights movement of our time.”

When she was elected to Congress in 1975, Keys said there were 19 women out of 435 members of the House, and no women in the Senate. In 1999, there will be 67 women in the House and Senate. “We were just beginning to understand how laws covering retirement and taxes could have an impact on women and could be very unfair. Today those issues are front and center. Enormous changes have been made,” Keys said.

Wexler launched her career in politics as a volunteer licking stamps and organizing campaigns. She said during the post-Feminine Mystique (1963) period, she and other women learned skills and how to convert volunteer experience into a professional life. She described Washington as the most promising place in America to rise to the top, to prove one’s ability.

Thomas, who remains outraged that women didn’t get the vote until 1920, noted that although women have been accepted in the workplace since World War II, during the Reagan era, the women’s movement hit a plateau. Clinton’s appointments of Madeleine Albright as Secretary of State and Janet Reno as U.S. Attorney General have shown that women can do these jobs, Thomas said.

Dole: Women can’t ‘do it all’; need to decide what is important, lasting, noble

“Women in politics” once was considered an oxymoron. “The idea used to be as different as having a professional wrestler elected governor of Minnesota,” quipped Elizabeth Dole, president of the American Red Cross, speaking at a conference titled “Women in American Political Life: We’ve Come a Long Way—Maybe.”

Recalling the days when few women worked outside the home and when she and her female classmates had to learn to sew and to create a perfect beet salad to graduate from her high school in Salisbury, N.C., Dole said she wanted to take a different path.

As a freshman at Duke University in 1954, she majored in political science. Audience members laughed when Dole recounted how women students—called Duchesses at Duke—were advised to eat breakfast every day, to wear hats and hosiery to church, and to send thank-you notes to dates. After graduation, when she wanted to visit the Soviet Union, obtaining her parents’ permission was almost as difficult as getting a visa, said Dole, who eventually convinced them that the trip’s educational value would outweigh the dangers.

At the urging of Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, whom she met while working one summer as a secretary in Washington, Dole entered Harvard Law School, one of 24 women in a class of 550.

“Society was changing. We had managed to unlock doors but no one was inviting us in,” Dole recalled. In contrast, today more than 40 percent of Harvard’s law students are women, and women are a political force that can’t be ignored. Since 1964, more women than men have voted in every national election, she noted, and they care as much about tax cuts and defense as men. They also are concerned about such issues as health care and education.

Many women found their first job in political work because they volunteered or would work for lower salaries than men, she said. Dole has worked in Washington for more than three decades. She headed the White House Office of Consumer Affairs under Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon and served as secretary of transportation for President Ronald Reagan and as secretary of labor under President George Bush. President of the American Red Cross since 1991, Dole oversees nearly 30,000 staff members and more than 1.5 million volunteers.

“Women are no longer characterized by stereotypes. Today you can be you, whatever that means. Women can choose career, family or both. We, like America, are still a work in progress,” Dole said.

For the past 30 years women have had to be overachievers to succeed, working twice as hard to achieve half as much. According to Dole, women are still nurturers, and the constant pressure to be perfect takes its toll.

“Women were told we could do everything and still have time for our self and soul, without regrets. Not everything women have been told is true. We can’t have it all. Time and energy and realities of life will not allow it. Our freedom to choose requires us to decide among our wants. We must decide what is important, what is lasting, what is noble,” Dole said.

In his opening remarks at the conference, former President Gerald Ford paid tribute to two strong women: his wife, Betty, and his mother Dorothy Gardner, who divorced her abusive first husband, remarried, raised a family and remained active until her death in 1967.

Expressing admiration for his wife’s courage and candor, Ford recalled a 1975 interview with “60 Minutes” in which she spoke bluntly about pre-marital sex and abortion. Her comments sparked a public outcry, Ford said. “Betty faced and dispelled stereotypes,” he added.

Noting that Dole has “broken more ground than a North Campus bulldozer,” Ford said, “she may shatter the oldest tradition in the American political arena [the presidency] . . . and could be the GOP’s savior in the year 2000.”

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