Media Calls Year of Conservative Women 'Year of the Setback' for Women

The year was 1992, and the November election season was hot with an anti-incumbent fever. Breathless politicos reveled over an exciting new phenomenon: unprecedented numbers of women weren't just racing for the polling booths, they were also running for office. The media proclaimed this surge in female candidates the “Year of the Women.” Feminists marveled at the unparalleled event – but sadly opined that such a “pro-woman” election season might never occur again.

Fast-forward to 2010. The number of women running for congressional office this November has exploded, breaking the previous record set in 1992. And on top of that, the ranks of female political superstars have also increased. Relative newcomers to the national stage – like former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and South Carolina gubernatorial nominee Nikki Haley – have quickly become household names.

But despite the trends, the “Year of the Women” talking-point has yet to resurface in the media. Few headlines welcome the surge in female candidates – in fact, many ignore it. “In Congress, a step back for women is looming,” bemoaned the front-page headline in USA Today on Oct. 4.

Other journalists have acknowledged the increasing number of women politicians, but mainly just to mock or belittle them. “To the connoisseur of American political theater the most entertaining aspect of the 2010 election season has been the rise of the right-wing cuties, political celebrities whose main qualification is looking terrific on TV,” wrote Gene Lyons in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Why hasn't the media celebrated the recent torrent of female candidates, like it did in 1992? It may be because of one major difference – the conservative values of the current candidates. The record-breaking number of women running for congress is due to a massive increase in female GOP candidates – more than 100 Republican women are running for seats in the House alone.

This election season is clearly shaping up to be the “Year of the Conservative Women.” And while conservatives have been openly celebrating this progression – most notably in the new film “Fire in the Heartland,” which profiles prominent conservative females – the mainstream media has largely ignored it.

How the Media Spun the “Year of the Women” in 1992

“Women are running in unprecedented numbers for state legislative races and for a variety of statewide offices, from governor to treasurer to secretary of state,” heralded The Washington Post on April 7, 1992. The paper quoted progressive Democratic candidate Elizabeth Furse saying that, “People see women as agents of change.”

The Boston Globe surmised that the popularity of female candidates was “based on who the women candidates aren't: self-satisfied white male incumbent Washington insiders.”

“In a year of palpable voter anger with the status quo, being an easily identifiable outsider will be a powerful asset in many races,” continued the Globe, on May 5, 1992.

According to the media, the impediments to these women's success in politics were men and Republicans.

“It's interesting that this new activism on the part of women is coming at a time when feminism itself is under new scrutiny. Some commentators are saying it has failed; others, such as journalist Susan Faludi, are saying it has suffered from a ferocious backlash – that men simply don't want it to succeed,” reported the Hartford Courant on May 2, 1992.

The Los Angeles Times wrote on April 30, 1992, that the increase in female candidates “may be a watershed in their long struggle to attain more power in the male-dominated political world, leaders of women's groups and political analysts say.”

And the media also focused on the fact that most of the female candidates were Democrats.

“The majority of women candidates are Democrats and an increasing number of women are turning to the Democratic Party. That could affect turnout in November and help Democrats win the White House,” reported NPR's Elizabeth Arnold on July 10, 1992.

On July 14, 1992, CBS News reported Regina Blakely said that many of the female candidates “were inspired by public reaction to the Clarence Thomas hearings, cashing in on an angry America and its desire for change.”

And USA Today reported on July 9, 1993 that, “If 1992 was the 'year of the woman' in politics, 1994 inevitably will be a disappointment,” partly because of roadblocks created by Republicans.

“Among the barriers” noted by USA Today was that, “Several [freshman candidates] have already been targeted by GOP TV ads critical of their support for President Clinton's economic program.” Also, “The party in power – Democrats – traditionally loses congressional seats in midterm elections. Since 21 of the freshmen women are Democrats, they become that much more vulnerable.”

Conservative Female Candidates Today

The media coverage of women running for office in 2010 has been remarkably different than it was in 1992.

“Blanche Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1992, a time when women gained so much ground in the House and Senate that it was dubbed the 'Year of the Women,'” reported USA Today in a front-page story on Oct. 4. “Now, the Arkansas senator, who faces Republican John Boozman in November, is fighting for her political life in what could wind up being called the Year of the Setback.”

The paper argued that female candidates for congress have “been hurt by a combination of a tough political landscape for Democrats – women in Congress are disproportionately Democratic – and the nation's economic troubles. Hard times historically have made voters more risk-averse and less willing to consider voting for a female candidate”

And other media outlets have openly mocked conservative women candidates, or “mama grizzlies” as Sarah Palin has dubbed fellow female conservatives.

America's 'mama grizzlies' – homely, conservative women with their hearts set on power - are easy to mock. Yet their influence is spreading. Why do we fear them?” asked a column in the New Statesman on Oct. 4.

The magazine also noted that conservative women in politics is nothing new – because apparently women “were also involved in the pro-fascist movements in the Second World War, and in anti-desegregation campaigning during the civil rights movement. But rightist women's movements 'exploded', [Pittsburgh University Sociology Profressor Kathleen] Blee says, with the emergence of an organized Christian right in 1979, the year the pastor Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority.”

Journalists have ridiculed top Republican female politicians, painting Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Nevada senatorial candidate Sharon Angle and Delaware senatorial candidate Christine O'Donnell as “crazy” and “ditzy.”

CNN contributor John Avlon called O'Donnell the “new queen of the wingnuts,” and MSNBC “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough said that Angle “sounds like a mental patient.”

On ABC, reporter David Wright compared Palin to a “Barbie doll.”

“[Barbie's] been an astronaut and a rock star. Pop icons Beyonce and Shakira. She's won 'American Idol' too,” said Wright on Feb. 16, 2009, after showing clips of Palin. “Some would argue she also ran for vice-president in 2008.”

And columnist Gene Lyons belittled the surge in Republican female candidates as “the GOP Cupcake Factor.”

“A man who'd made half the screwball pronouncements that O'Donnell's emitted in her career as a talk show guest, virtually the only job she's ever had, would be seen as dangerously unhinged,” wrote Lyons. “Outside Delaware, she appears destined to be seen mainly as a TV performer like Sarah Palin and the third member of the Republican cute caucus, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.”

Positive coverage of the female Republican candidates has mainly come from the Right. In a new film called Fire from the Heartland,” which was produced by Citizens United Productions, conservative women leaders like Palin, Bachmann, commentator S.E. Cupp, and columnist Michelle Malkin are celebrated as a part of a growing trend of conservative women.

There's little knew in attacks from the left on women who dare to leave the liberal reservation. High profile conservative women have been slimed in violent, sexist and sexual ways by everyone from Playboy magazine to Rolling Stone to feminist Bonnie Erbe. Left-wing network MSNBC in particular has been unsparing in savaging women of the right, and the treatment of GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin during the 2008 election set a new low in liberal bias.  

Like this article? Sign up for "Culture Links," CMI's weekly e-mail newsletter, by clicking here.