"Her face is one we don't want shown in South Carolina," said state Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian. "She is liberal, far too liberal on issues such as Second Amendment issues. People in South Carolina own guns. The death penalty – even African Americans in South Carolina, the majority of them are in favor of the death penalty now. Gay marriages? I am sorry, now that may be an issue that's hot in San Francisco, but not in the rest of the country."
That reaction to the Democrats' selection of Nancy Pelosi as their new House leader was somewhat extreme, but generally the political chattering class, who like to think of themselves as enlightened, has greeted her with a mixture of derision and outright sexism. E.J Dionne cites the Economist, which pronounced Pelosi a "disaster for the Democrats," and the New Republic, which decided that "even if she does stake out sensible positions on the issues, her background will make it hard for her to frame them effectively." As Dionne tartly points out: "And you thought that in this country someone's background shouldn't affect her capacity to achieve?"
Pelosi, who scared her closest competitor, Martin Frost, out of the race a week before the vote, and then beat Harold Ford 177-29, did so with the help of her campaign manager, Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha, someone rarely described as a San Francisco Democrat. The Democratic men of the House decided that Pelosi's ability to organize and put a new face on the Democratic Party was good enough for them, but somehow those who don't know her have resorted to old stereotypes and knee-jerk analysis.
The fact that women still have a tough row to hoe is borne out not just by the reaction to Pelosi but by this year's election results, and by a study by the White House Project analyzing problems of women running for executive office.
After rather dramatic increases in the 1990s — the decade began with 25 women in the House and two in the Senate and ended with 60 in the House and 13 in the Senate – there was virtually no change in the number of women in the Senate, House or governorships this year. The number of women senators will remain at 13 in the next Congress, with Missouri Democrat Jean Carnahan replaced in the ranks by GOP Sen.-elect Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina. In the House, the numbers are also static and Emily's List President Ellen Malcolm says the reason was largely redistricting. Incumbents protected themselves in redistricting and the opportunities for new blood were diminished. Challengers have a very hard time defeating incumbents and for women to win in large numbers there have to be a lot of open seats. Malcolm says that her organization is doing a significant amount of training of women state legislators to get them ready when those congressional seats do open up, but the prospects for big gains in the near future don't look very promising.
Much was made this year of the large number of women running for governor, especially in high-profile races in Florida with Janet Reno, Maryland with Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Massachusetts with Shannon O'Brien. Twenty-three women ran for governor but only 10 received their parties' nominations. Of those, just four were successful: Linda Lingle in Hawaii, Janet Napolitano in Arizona (who replaces a woman, term-limited Gov. Jane Hull), Kathleen Sebelius in Kansas and Jennifer Granholm in Michigan. That brings the total number of women governors to six, just one more than before the election, since the terms of women governors in New Hampshire and Massachusetts are ending.
All four of those newly elected women governors benefited from being in the party that did not control the statehouse, and thus could not be blamed for budget shortfalls and other economic woes. But these successful women were all especially strong candidates who benefited from research on how women need to position themselves for executive office.
Jill Alper, a Washington-based political consultant for the Dewey Square group and the general consultant for Granholm's winning campaign in Michigan, says that one thing that helps women gain credibility is skill at playing the "inside game."
A study done by the White House Project says that women do not automatically get the benefit of the doubt and need to prove their credentials. Demonstrating an ability to raise big money and get major endorsements gave Granholm the gravitas she needed against two well-credentialed Democratic males: House Democratic Whip David Bonior and former Gov. Jim Blanchard. Another technique that worked for Granholm was filming commercials in black and white, which, in a world of color, gave them a distinctive and serious look.
The White House Project reviewed 400 campaign commercials and created a test group of ads so they could control for variables like setting, style, language, tone and subject matter. The particular dimension they wanted to test was effectiveness, n important quality to voters in choosing a governor and one on which women candidates often start out with a disadvantage.
The results showed that "women cannot be presented in the same ways as a man and achieve the same level of effectiveness." Women need to provide a proven record, use energetic presentations, use active verbs and talk about "non-kitchen table" issues, they conclude.
The recommendations are particularly interesting on the question of clothes and style. They urge women candidates to look formal and avoid casual clothing, They say while the effectiveness of male candidates is not questioned when seen in casual clothes, doubts occur about women if they are not presented in a formal setting. Granholm did one well-received ad in color – on the front porch in khakis and a blazer – but the campaign went back to black and white for the grand finale. And they were relieved to find out that voters in the final focus groups didn't talk about her appearance but about her competence.
Lessons learned in a disappointing year. Malcolm shrugs off the difficulties: "We're not going away, it may take a while, but we're here to stay."