"Most of all she had an overwhelming desire to be where the action was Many people saw her as shy, sometimes insecure and standoffish. She may have been all those things, too. But she was a player."
This is how Sally Quinn, Washington Post reporter and no slouch to action herself, described former Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, who died on Tuesday at the age of 84.
For women who gravitate to power, Washington is the ultimate trip. Much of that power was and still is held by men. But three women in the news this week Katharine Graham, Hillary Clinton and Chandra Levy are interesting examples of how women are evolving (or not) in the world of Washington power and politics.
Part of Chandra's sad story is typical of many young women who've come to Washington over the years. Dazzled by an older man (a congressman no less) and bored by the younger, less influential fellows, she spends lonely nights hanging around, waiting for him to call, willing to sneak out first to grab a cab and hide in Chinese restaurants in the suburbs because she's found a powerful magnate who makes her feel a lot more important than a mere 24-year-old intern.
Most of these young women get dumped, see reality, meet someone great and live good lives. Most have learned hard lessons, about fidelity and love, and more and more they are learning that they need to get and exercise power for and by themselves, not by basking in the limelight of a man who may or may not share.
Katharine Graham, the daughter of a wealthy publisher, married a flashy, brilliant and mentally ill man. Her life was as a daughter and a mother and a wife. She had a small job at the Washington Post, but her father brought her husband into the family business and eventually handed it over to him while she stood by.
Then tragedy struck. Phil Graham killed himself and, at the age of 46, Katharine Graham made the decision not to sell the paper but to run it herself.
"What I essentially did was to put one foot in front of the other, close my eyes and step off the ledge. The surprise was that I landed on my feet," she wrote in her autobiography.
Virtually every tribute this week noted her ability to grow, to step up to the plate, to exhibit steely courage and make tough decisions. They also emphasized what her feminine side brought to the equation; that she was a wonderful hostess and a good listener and understood how to forge social relationships which enhanced her own power and the clout of her newspaper.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, too, is finally emerging in her own right. The woman who seemed to be content to be the free one in "Buy one, get one free" the slogan Bill Clinton loved to use in the '92 campaign to introduce his very eual and involved partner got stung by the "who elected her" mantra that was hurled by critics during the health care debacle.
In the wake of health care and Monica, Hillary Clinton started telling friends she realized that if she wanted to leave her mark on the world she'd have to "do it on her own." This week, in her first speech at the National Press Club (an innovative non-wonky speech on environmental health hazards and chronic disease) a mature self-confidence tempered by some personal reverses and political defeats was on full display. A slip of the tongue as she tried to give her canned line denying presidential aspirations ("I'm having a great time being pres being a senator from New York") renewed speculation about her '04 ambitions. As the audience laughed loudly, she continued, "You're going to get me in a lot of trouble."
Being where the action is, being a player, being able to make things happen, is what has always driven people into politics. Not being taken seriously is a complaint that women have had in public and private life for years. As women like Kay Graham and Hillary Clinton have found, grabbing the reigns of power yourself is possible, though it helps to have the reigns nearby (and rich, powerful and supportive men to grab them from).
Women voters, too, are starting to be taken more seriously. The "gender gap" has been a factor in American politics for 20 years, with Democrats benefiting from an edge in votes from women, Republicans from men.
This week in Boston, the Republican National Committee came front and center on this issue, announcing a drive to reach women voters, to recruit and train women candidates and to hold a series of forums to show how beneficial President Bush's programs are for women. A Web site, winningwomen.org, has been created to showcase the Bush accomplishments and the work of women in the administration. The RNC produced charts illustrating that if only men had voted in 2000, President Bush would have carried 43 states and won 437 of the 535 electoral votes. Republicans have a particular weakness with working women and this program is an attempt to shore up support with this growing group of voters.
Little by little, women are being taken seriously and are becoming full players in the political world. Hopefully, they will be the role models for the next generation of young women who come to Washington wanting to be where the action is.
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