- The Washington Times - Friday, February 11, 2000

A political manifesto outlining how women can transform the political culture got a rave reception Wednesday night in Washington, D.C., at the swank Watergate home of literary agent Audrey Wolf.

The gathering of 210 persons was sprinkled with media and political figures. Sarah McClendon, doyen of the White House press corps, held court from her wheelchair. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ducked quickly in, then out, on her way to the opera.

Placed on a white marble table in one corner was a bouquet of delicate orchids with a card: "Our congratulations. Wish we were there! Tipper and Al."

In another corner was Harriett Woods, 72, the former president of the National Women's Political Caucus in town to promote her first book, "Stepping Up to Power: The Political Journey of American Women." Visitors snapped up copies of the thin volumes arranged on a red felt billiard table.

"I'm an old friend of Harriett's," announced Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, the only guest there without a name tag. "I don't like queen bees. I don't like people who've made it and don't feel they need to help anyone else."

But Mrs. Woods, she added, had turned her talents toward helping other women aspire toward politics. Not only had she wielded considerable influence toward stacking the Clinton administration with powerful female figures, she also teaches a course on women in public life at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.

Guests imbibing Ravenswood Chardonnay and hors d'oeuvres of Jasmine rice cakes, asparagus with red pepper sauce, Peking duck and tenderloin with anchovy sauce talked of how Mrs. Woods transformed Democratic Party politics. Others said they were simply inspired by the quantum leaps women have made in politics in the past decade.

Mrs. Woods' book describes how backroom politicking in the closing weeks of 1992 persuaded a reluctant Clinton administration to ratchet up its female appointments to 40 percent, including six women at Cabinet level.

"They really turned out for her," Mrs. Wolf said, "because she's been so helpful to them. She's a guru."

Elected lieutenant governor of Missouri in 1984, Mrs. Woods was the first woman elected to statewide office there. She also ran unsuccessful U.S. Senate races in 1982 and 1986 against male candidates. The 1982 race, against former Sen. John Danforth, a Republican, was a near-miss with Mrs. Woods earning 49 percent of the vote, losing by 27,500 ballots.

It was a surprisingly good showing, despite her status as an obscure state senator and a pro-choice, Reform Jewish Democrat in a largely rural state where many voters are conservative Christians. She had decided to run only eight months before the general election.

Moreover, the state's Democratic party officials declined to back her until, bolstered by money from female supporters, she won the August 1982 primary 2-to-1 over the party favorite.

Although she lost, her race inspired an initiative called EMILY's List (for "Early Money Is Like Yeast" it makes the dough rise) to provide money for pro-choice female candidates early in their campaigns.

Not long after she accepted the NWPC job in Washington, the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings electrified the nation. Some women were aghast at the activities of the all-male panel that questioned accuser Anita Hill.

"They said, 'That is what represents us?' Mrs. Woods says. "We said: 'How can we turn this into a way to elect more women?' "

Her ire at the Clarence Thomas hearings had a personal edge; the nominee was sponsored by her old nemesis, Mr. Danforth.

Mrs. Woods' caucus, as well as other women's groups, helped transform 1992 into the "Year of the Woman," a media label that was "a phony phrase," Mrs. Woods admits, "because we wanted to build on the general concern about who was represented."

With the help of $6 million from EMILY's List, a record 213 women ran for House seats the spring of 1992, with 106 of them getting their party's nomination. Eleven women were nominated for Senate seats.

Mrs. Woods says she stressed issues that women agreed on and downplayed ones where they did not. For that reason, she refused an invitation from the National Organization for Women to take part in a large abortion-rights march in the spring of 1992.

"If we were going to get money, it would be through women on phone banks, not busing them to Washington for a march on abortion," the author says. "I thought [the parade] was a publicity stunt that could be NOW's style but it wasn't what a lot of other women's organizations wanted."

Record amounts of women mostly Democrats or liberal Republicans were elected to congressional seats, causing Rep. Henry Hyde, Illinois Republican, to comment there were so many women on the floor of the House, it looked like a shopping mall. The infusion of estrogen helped push through several pro-choice measures, such as the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances bill.

It also sparked a response from conservative women who founded the Susan B. Anthony List, a political action committee raising funds for pro-life women. That list helped elect seven conservative women to Congress in 1994, candidates whom Mrs. Woods called "fervent ideologues in pursuit of a hostile agenda."

Also by 1994, liberal women were losing key races and fewer were running for state legislatures. Female political involvement, Mrs. Woods realized, was not always a given.

"We've leveled the playing field," she says. "People can run but they don't want to. They have this perception that politics is mud wrestling and they think, why enter this when I can be a law partner or a social worker?"

Mrs. Woods left the NWPC in 1995 at the age of 68. She received this tribute from the Chicago Tribune: "It is ironic that, as NWPC president, she probably has made far more of a difference than she would have as a senator."

Back in Missouri mentoring young female students, Mrs. Woods hopes to influence them to consider public service. In light of the Elizabeth Dole and Hillary Rodham Clinton candidacies, she says there's been some progress.

But she was "disappointed," she says, that Mrs. Dole quit her presidential aspirations without reaching the primaries.

"I wanted her to stay in," she says. "Whether I agreed with her or not, it would've been such a benefit to have seen her on the screens in New Hampshire and Iowa. Think what this means for young women to see an all-male lineup again."

As for Mrs. Clinton's efforts in New York, "She is overqualified, if anything," Mrs. Woods says. "The question is whether New Yorkers are comfortable with her. People wonder: Is she doing this for us or herself? It's the ambition issue.

"Now there's nothing wrong with ambition. Right now, people are holding off, not feeling that commitment and enthusiasm. But I don't think women's success rises or falls on whether Hillary wins."

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