WASHINGTON - As Mitt Romney would say, it's a particularly well-stuffed "binder full of women." The 2012 vintage of candidates for public office is one of the best -- at least in terms of quantity. More women are running for Congress this year than ever before. The newspapers are comparing it to the 1992 so-called "Year-of-the-Woman," when the number of women in the Senate doubled.
That election was just after the Anita Hill affair. The young lawyer had leveled accusations of sexual harassment against Judge Clarence Thomas, nominated to the Supreme Court by the first President George Bush.
The Senate hearings, in which the young black woman had to face 14 white men, were watched by millions of people. One of them was Patty Murray, a mother from Seattle, who was horrified at the questions directed at Hill, as well as the fact that there were no women on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Today, Patty Murray is the fourth-ranked Democrat in the Senate.
Do Americans currently feel that women are "in danger?" The number of candidates this year has leaped to a level not seen since 1992. According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers (CAWP), out of the 33 Senate seats up for grabs this year, there are 18 women candidates, and 163 women are running for the House of Representatives, where there are 435 seats.
According to the CAWP’s director, Debbie Walsh, the same factors exist today as in 1992. It is the first vote since redistricting, which encourages new candidacies, and there is a climate that “underscores the need for women’s voices in policymaking." Wars, deficits, budget cuts in education and health-- women want to be heard.
The Democrats have made a bit more progress toward parity than Republicans have. Twelve of the 18 female Senate candidates are Democrats, as well as 116 of the 163 female candidates for the House. In three senatorial elections, in California, New York, and Hawaii, both candidates are women. The same is true of 11 House races.
Erotic novels, favorite designers
All this has not happened without a few cases of foot-in-the-mouth. During a debate in New York between the two Senate candidates, there was a question about the book Fifty Shades of Grey, the erotic novel by E.L. James that has already sold 40 million copies, but which no one will ever cop to reading. "Have you read Fifty Shades of Grey?" asked Liz Benjamin, the debate moderator. There were bursts of laughter and sounds of disapproval from the audience. Wendy Long, who had been holding her hands clasped, tightened them a bit more. "No," she answered, with a polite, embarrassed smile.
Long did not show the same quick thinking as Hillary Clinton. When a moderator recently asked her which designers she preferred, the Secretary of State answered, incredulous, "What designers of clothes? Would you ever ask a man that question?" The male moderator took less than two seconds to admit, “Probably not.”
Long’s Democratic opponent at the New York debate responded that she had not read the bestseller either. "Neither have I," the moderator felt obliged to say. Miss Long, who is fiercely anti-abortion, said later that she didn’t think the question was sexist. Barack Obama himself had already been asked the same question, though less directly: "Do you know the name of the controversial erotic novel that's on millions of women's bedside tables?" he was asked in May on "The View." "No," he answered cautiously. "But I'll ask Michelle when I get home."
Away from the lights and cameras of the elections, American women face a bleak reality on the political front. The 2012 Year-of-the-Woman, hides dire statistics. The U.S. ranks 94th worldwide in the number of women in national legislature. There are only 17 women in the Senate, and they hold only 17 % of the 435 seats in the House. Men also have 80 % of the seats in state legislatures. Six of the 50 governors are women, but after Nov. 6 there could be only one left.
The year 2010 was favorable to candidates who were fairly well known, but it was bad for the overall numbers of women, which dropped for the first time since 1992. Linda McMahon, who was beaten in 2010, reappeared this year in Connecticut's senate race. She no longer campaigns on her success at the head of World Wrestling Entertainment, but on its bankruptcy. And this time she may well be elected.
Among registered voters, there are 8.6 million more women than men, and their participation rate is also higher. Since 1992, that gap has been growing, especially among young people. All this gives women "massive electoral power," says Karen Beckwith, professor at the University of Cleveland in Ohio. Women have traditionally voted for the Democrats.
Why are there so few women in office? There has been little progress since 1992, although female income has gone up by 60%. One explanation comes from the She Should Run association, "dedicated to dramatically increasing the number of women in public leadership by eliminating and overcoming barriers to success."
The organization believes that women do not give enough money to election campaigns - only 26 % of the total political contributions in 2010. Indeed, it is a well-known fact of American democracy that you have to pay if you want to be heard.