There are more women candidates for high office this year than ever, and the good news is that most are rising or falling on their merits, not sexism. As with their male counterparts, many are not too bright or experienced—make your own list—while others are exceptional in every way. Yes, women are still underrepresented in Congress and in statehouses but the gains have been impressive, even if the candidates not so much.
Things were much, much worse, just a few years ago. Consider the 1950 race for the US Senate in California. It is best known for its role in the rise of Richard Nixon, and as one of the dirtiest, red-baiting campaigns, but it is equally revealing as an early test of women in politics in the United States. I was the first to focus on this angle in my 1998 book for Random House, Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady.
The Pink Lady, of course, was former actress, longtime Democratic activist—and three-term congresswoman—Helen Gahagan Douglas. She was the first women to seek high-level office in California, and only a handful had won across the nation. Sixty years later the state has two powerful women in the US Senate, and GOP female candidates for the Senate and the governor’s slot this year.
I thought it would be valuable to publish an excerpt from the opening of my book (below), which sketches what Douglas encoutered as she easily won the Demooratic nod that year—even before she faced the wrath of Richard Nixon (among other things, he would charge that she was "pink right down to her underwear").
In an atmosphere of vigilance and fear, Californians went to the polls on June 6, 1950, to nominate two candidates for the US Senate, setting the stage for a sensational election contest that fall.
As polls opened on primary day, political "dopesters" went "stir-crazy" trying to predict the results, the Hollywood Reporter observed. With California’s population surging it was impossible to predict how the new arrivals would vote. At midafternoon, Helen Gahagan Douglas, the Democratic front-runner in the Senate race, received a telegram from actress Greta Garbo that read, "Helen–Tonight or Never. God bless you." Tonight or Never, a Broadway hit, had catapulted Helen Gahagan to stardom in 1930 and introduced her to future husband Melvyn Douglas, who later appeared opposite Garbo in Ninotchka.
Garbo must have sensed her friend’s need for a boost on primary day, for the campaign had been painful and exhausting. The outgoing Democratic senator, Sheridan Downey, had announced that Douglas did not have "the fundamental ability and qualifications" —i.e. she was a woman—to replace him and accused her of giving "comfort to Soviet tyranny." Privately, an associate had advised Downey that Douglas was "a self-seeking, highly perfumed, smelly old girl," adding, "I don’t believe in sending women to the House of Representatives or to the US Senate either. "
A San Jose newspaper reported that if not exactly Red, she was "decidedly pink." Westbrook Pegler, the syndicated columnist, cataloged her female deficiencies: her inattention to serious duties and her willingness to be nothing more than a "fluttering satellite" of the far left wing of her party. On top of that, fraternity boys at the University of Southern California had sprayed seltzer at her during a campus rally.