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BACKTALK | spring 2006

Women Needed to Clean Beltway Mess
Will political scandals boost female candidates?

Washington, D.C., is a loud city, especially in an election year. It’s always full of gossip and chitchat, but the buzz has been deafening lately. Some people in town are holding their breath, hoping the lobbying and corruption scandals involving such figures as Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff will go away. Others, giddy like children on Christmas morning, await the partisan gifts that a jury in Texas or a plea bargained, disgraced lobbyist might bestow.

There is also much chatter about how women candidates in 2006 could benefit from the recent scandals inside the Beltway. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, women are throwing their hats in the ring for major elected positions in nine-tenths of the Union: 15 women are running for U.S. Senate, 165 for the U.S. House and 15 for state governorships. And that’s not even counting those running for other state offices.

A number of open seats (no incumbent in the running) beckon women to compete, including Senate seats in Vermont, Tennessee, Maryland and Minnesota, and governorships in Massachusetts and Florida. If we follow the adage that “every open seat is a woman’s seat,” women really do have the poten tial to make some waves during this election cycle. This is welcome news for those hoping 2006 will become another “Year of the Woman.”

But can women candidates capitalize on the Washington scandals in order to position themselves to win? While there is support for the theory that political corruption benefits women candidates, women cannot always assume success in such a political climate. Take a look at both sides of the historical record:

Scandal and corruption first brought women into politics around the turn of the 20th century. Fed up with crooked party bosses and a political system based on patronage and cronyism, women became a powerful voice for reform. While society insisted on confining women to the realm of “virtues” and housecleaning, women reasoned that these skills should be applied to cleaning up the dirty and corrupt business of politics. From Jane Addams to Alice Stone Blackwell, courageous women argued that it was time to instigate “municipal housekeeping.”

While women initially succeeded in electoral politics because of corruption, the latter half of the 20th century has demonstrated inconsistency in this regard. Watergate, the biggest scandal to rock the Capitol, created no upsurge in women’s representation, nor did observers claim that women could run politics differently from their male counterparts. The nomination of former Rep. Geraldine Ferraro for vice president in 1984 preceded the Iran-contra scandal. Furthermore, the number of women in the U.S. Congress rose only slightly in 1990 after the messy savings and loan ordeal.

However, the number of women candidates rose to new levels in 1992, on the heels of house banking and post-office scandals and the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings. It was no coincidence that dozens of incumbent congressmen did not seek reelection following the scandals of the early ’90s, while reapportionment also opened up districts for non-incumbents. The availability of open seats and newly drawn districts certainly may have motivated more women candidates than usual to enter congressional races.

Given the mess inside the Beltway today, women candidates can once again help clean up government, as they did a century earlier. But women should win their elections not simply because they portray the appropriate stereotype for the given political situation; they should win because they are the most qualified. It can be just as dangerous to paint all female candidates as virtuous and “clean” as it is to portray men as strong and decisive. Feminists should not put a gender on honesty and integrity; rather, we should encourage women candidates to stress the theme of positive change.

So, I advise women candidates not only to campaign hard against the “culture of corruption,” but also to adopt platforms that include such issues as health care, education, jobs and the environment. In that way, women can benefit from the political moment without losing the battle to avoid old gender stereotypes.

On a personal note, I wish to acknowledge Coretta Scott King, a terrific mentor and personal friend who, during her life—along with her recently departed sisters Shirley Chisholm, C. DeLores Tucker, Molly Yard and Betty Friedan—gave me and so many other women our wings to soar.

Donna Brazile is adjunct assistant professor of women’s studies at Georgetown University and is chair of the Democratic National Committee’s Voting Rights Institute. She is also the author of Cooking With Grease: Stirring the Pots in American Politics (Simon & Schuster, 2004).