AD Main Menu

Gail Collins: Women gain more political attention, but to what end?

This election season is going to be all about women.

OK, not entirely. Men will be involved on many significant levels, like running the network of oligarchs who take advantage of our weakened campaign finance laws to manipulate the American democratic process in pursuit of their own selfish ends. That's definitely a guy thing.

All right, I'll settle down. Men occupy most of the seats in Congress, and that's not going to change in November. However, women are starring in a lot of exciting election stories this year.

Consider the U.S. Senate. The Republicans need to win six seats to take control. There are about a dozen races that seem to be up in the air, and most of them feature female candidates from one party or the other. "Sometimes I feel like the weight of the Senate is resting on my shoulders," said Stephanie Schriock, the president of Emily's List, which raises money for pro-choice Democratic women. Emily's List candidates like the hard-pressed Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, are doing very well in fundraising this year. Although the oligarchs can come thumping down at any moment.

The political world this week was watching North Carolina, where Republicans were duking it out to see who would get to run against Hagan. Excitement was so high that nearly 16 percent of eligible voters came to the polls.

Thom Tillis, the speaker of the state House, won. Tillis is coming off an extremely productive legislative season, which included major abortion restrictions passed as an amendment to a bill on motorcycle safety. Also, in a canny show of foresight, he championed a new law that will make it more difficult for young and poor people to vote.

The fights aren't all going to be liberal woman versus conservative man. In Michigan, the Republican candidate, Terri Lynn Land, has an ad in which she tells the viewers that Democrats like her opponent, Rep. Gary Peters, "want you to believe I'm waging war on women. Really. Think about that for a moment." And then she just sits there drinking coffee. It's pretty effective, except for the part where Peters did not actually accuse her of waging a war on women.

"As a woman, I might know a little bit more about women than Gary Peters," Land says at the end. She opposes Obamacare, backed the government shutdown in 2013 and opposes abortion rights. She also opposes the current congressional bill to raise the minimum wage, which disproportionately affects women. She came out against the equal pay bill that would have made it easier for women to figure out whether they were getting the same wages as their male peers. It is certainly possible for a woman in Congress to have one of these positions and still support her gender. But keep piling this stuff up and you eventually have to ask: What's the point?

The Republican establishment would love to have more female candidates -- particularly the kind like Land who campaign well and do not have plans to rock the boat on any subject whatsoever. But they've failed to deliver. Only four of the 20 women in the Senate are Republicans, and only 19 of the 79 women in the House.

"The Republican women can't make it through their primaries," said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics. "I think one reason is that they tend to be more moderate than men or at least may be perceived to be more moderate."

"It's infinitely harder for women to fight the primary process in the Republican Party," agreed Olympia Snowe, the former Republican senator from Maine. "There's such a low turnout in primaries, and generally the ones who vote are the ones further to the right."

Snowe is keen on Monica Wehby, who's running in the Republican Senate primary in Oregon. Wehby has a heart-rending ad about her work as a pediatric neurosurgeon that's drawn national attention and more than 100,000 YouTube views. That's a huge number for a political video in which nobody yells. However, Wehby is swimming through controversies about her practice, her campaign and - yes! - sex. Also, the right-to-life movement is upset that the doctor believes abortion is a matter between a woman and her doctor.

Like Hispanics, female voters are a huge target audience for both parties this year. Like Hispanics, women have gotten virtually no advantage out of this intense interest, unless you count piles of dead legislation in Congress as an achievement.

"At least that's better than being ignored," said Walsh, philosophically.

At the minimum, we'll have an opportunity to spend the next few months enjoying a bounty of pander. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's campaign has been boasting about his support for the Violence Against Women Act, which was indeed the case about 20 years ago. Mitch McConnell was for the Violence Against Women Act when the original version of "Dallas" was still on the air. Since then, he has voted against it three times.

But nobody's perfect.

Gail Collins is a columnist for The New York Times.



By GAIL COLLINS