Friday, May 4, 2012

The Year of the Woman

by Sheila Connolly

Twenty years ago, I signed up as a volunteer for a U.S. senatorial campaign in Pennsylvania. The candidate was a woman, and that year was dubbed "The Year of the Woman" in politics.

I know we don't talk about political positions in this blog (always a minefield), but all of us regular bloggers are women, most of the protagonists we write are women, and the majority of our readers are women, so I hope I may speak about women and politics in general terms.

1992 was a special year in politics, one in which we believed that the status quo might actually be changing, and we were going to be part of it. I had only dabbled in political activities before that—typing envelopes in high school, handing out candidate flyers at the old Boston Garden in college. I'm not sure I held any strong political convictions then. Early on I tried to adopt my parents' party allegiance, but that never quite took (and they more or less switched parties by the end of their lives anyway). I didn't join the 1992 campaign out of any idealogical position. Mostly I was curious to see what a campaign looked like from the inside, since every four years (or less) campaigns take over a large part of our news.

So I showed up and was put to work, and before long I was managing the entire data entry process, and getting paid for it. In the few months leading up to the election, I input 60,000 contributions from 40,000 individual donors (and ended up with carpal tunnel syndrome, no surprise). In case you've never been part of a campaign, it really is thrown together from one or two paid consultants and a whole lot of young, eager, enthusiastic volunteers who will do just about anything—drive people around, make endless phone calls, fill out the crowd at events and rallies.

In this case the core staff numbered around twenty people. Maybe. This was a statewide campaign that drew some national attention, and a bunch of kids in a shabby rented office were running the show. Heck, I was one of the oldest workers there, and I was the stuffy one, with a husband and child and a house in the suburbs.

Without question, it was the most fun I've had in my adult life. I loved it. I met all sorts of people, both politicians and celebrities, whose names you'd recognize. I got to be in a commercial, as part of the crowd (I still have the videotape). There were breathtaking highs and lows, and we celebrated every success, no matter how small.

Our candidate lost. Not because of incompetence or even lack of funds, but because we didn't want to play some of the long-established political games that might have pushed our candidate over the top. We had nothing to apologize for. Some Internet sources such as Wikipedia claim our candidate lost because of inexperience. Yes, she was new to politics, and goodness knows the staff was. But we thought what we were doing was important and we worked our butts off.

So here we are, twenty years later. Has anything changed? The public flaps between opposing candidates and parties over the past few weeks—about women/mothers working, about the right to choose, and more—make me wonder if we're moving backwards, not forwards. We might have thought that these were issues that were settled a generation ago, but here they are again, striking nerves on both sides of the aisle.

How far have we come? Not far enough. I still believe that government would run more smoothly if there were more women involved.

P.S. If you want a real sense of what the behind-the-scenes feeling was in a campaign, Primary Colors (by Anonymous/Joe Klein, 1996) captures it well.


Susan Oleksiw said...

Sheila, thanks for this post. I had a similar experience, though not as intense (or as lucrative) as yours. My candidate also lost, but it was quite an education for me. Another woman running for a different seat also lost, and both women lost, I think, because they listened to male advisers and went against their own instincts. In fact, there were very few female advisers, because so few women had won state-wide or local office. I remember my candidate setting off to do things that she wasn't convinced would work instead of what she wanted to do. And I certainly remember the young college boys who seemed to go from campaign to campaign, with enormous energy and some very astute insights. Thanks for reminding me of that time.

Julia Buckley said...

I'm with you. More women, more parity, better government (and, one would hope, less hypocrisy).