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Monday, August 27, 2012

National Archives salutes women

From left, Jennifer Krafchik, Jennifer Lawless, Joy Kinard, and Page Harrington at National Archives/Patricia Leslie

The public is grateful to National Archives for its annual recognition of Women's Equality Day celebrated every August 26, the day in 1920 when the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed granting women the right to vote. 

Last week Archives hosted a panel of three women who talked about Beyond the Vote: Post-Suffrage Strategies to Gain Access to Power.

A co-sponsor of the event was the Sewall-Belmont House & Museum whose executive director, Page Harrington, served as moderator for the discussion.

Jennifer Krafchik of the Sewall-Belmont House presented history of the women's suffrage movement and talked about the first woman elected to Congress, Jeanette Rankin (1880-1973, R-Montana), and cited the congresswoman's anti-World War I and World War II votes. 

Joy Kinard, a district manager for the National Park Service talked only about civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955), but given that Dr. Kinard works at the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House on Vermont Avenue, and C-Span was filming, it was a good time to promote her cause.

But it was Jennifer Lawless, an associate professor at American University and the director of its Women  & Politics Institute, who grabbed attention, enlivening the evening with her talk, humor and new information about women and elections.

She lamented the dearth of female candidates and noted how quickly women's issues have risen on the agenda of this fall's political races.  Who would have guessed two weeks ago? 

(Enter stage right Congressman Todd Akin of Missouri.)

“Women make a very important difference” in elections, Dr. Lawless said, for they “almost always decide” outcomes, and they are much more politically active than men.

In the early 1990s Republican women in Congress often sided with their female Democratic counterparts on women’s issues, but severe Capitol Hill polarization now pits party vs. party, and female representation makes no difference when votes are cast. 

The Year of the Woman was 1992 when unprecedented numbers of women ran for office, propelled to action and getting their names on ballots by the 1991 case, Anita Hill vs. a male-only U.S. Senate panel in the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination battle. 

So why has the number of female candidates slowed?  Women represent just 17 percent of the members of the U.S. Congress.

You can't blame the media for distorted representations for Lawless and Richard L. Fox analyzed 5,000 news stories about male and female candidates and uncovered no gender differences in coverage. 

You can’t blame voters who, research reveals, show no bias against female candidates of either party.

You can't blame lack of money for once females get going, they can raise goodly sums of cash, and Lawless ought to know since, without a lot of effort (she indicated) she was able to raise $400,000 for her own congressional race in Rhode Island in 2006. (She lost, but once you hear her, you wonder about the loss, instead, to the Rhode Island residents who can't claim her as their representative.)  (The average congressional race costs about $1 million.)

What you can blame are poor self confidence and the misconception that women believe they are not qualified, nor do they have enough money to run for office.  A lot of money is not needed in most of the 525,000 elected positions (!) in the U.S. It's the presidential race and some Senate elections where hefty sums are necessary, and that’s what attracts press attention.

“The perception problem matters more than reality,” Lawless said.

Female candidates do better when they strike out on their own and are not associated with campaigns run and dominated by men, research shows.

The importance of appearance came up for discussion, too. 

Dr. Kinard said that although Ms. Bethune was overweight, she was always dressed to the nines with gloves, hat, and a level of sophistication which silently transcended her surroundings and sent strong messages that she was to be respected and admired. 

When people show up on doorsteps with tattoos, their level of sophistication is entirely different, Dr. Kinard said.  Look at Hillary Rodham Clinton and the way she presents herself, said Dr. Kinard.  “We need more younger women to love themselves to get a man to respect them.”

There’s more talk this year about how the male candidates dress, too:  People are talking about Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s “ill-fitting suits,’ Dr. Lawless said.

This fall she will be teaching a course at American University about this year's election, and it is a certainty that the course is already full. 

About 150 persons of various ages and races attended the presentation at Archives with more males present than one expected.  They made up about 20 percent of the audience. 

What:  National Archives

When: 10 a.m. - 7 p.m. through Labor Day (September 3), closing at 5:30 p.m. after Labor Day through March 14, 2013

Where: Constitution Avenue, between 7th and 9th streets, NW

How much: No charge

Metro station: Archives-Navy Memorial-Penn Quarter or walk from Metro Center

For more information: 866-272-6272

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