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WOMEN CANDIDATES: You've Come A Long Way, Maybe | The Nation

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Greg Mitchell

Greg Mitchell

Media, politics and culture.

WOMEN CANDIDATES: You've Come A Long Way, Maybe

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").

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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.

Perhaps the most distasteful personal attack, however came from the state's leading political writer. Kyle Palmer of the Los Angeles Times had criticized her Democratic rival, Manchester Boddy, for running a colorless campaign with "too much dignity" but advised that he "might still defeat the lady if he tried—in a political sense, of course—to slap her around a bit." And so as the race tightened, Boddy charged that a "subversive clique of red hots" was attempting to take over the Democratic Party, and he accused Douglas of harboring "communist sympathies."

But it was the newspaper he published, the Los Angeles Daily News, that first put into print a new nickname for Helen Douglas. "The Pink Lady," the Daily News called her.

Through it all, Douglas had remained confident, and with some cause. She was intelligent, articulate, and attractive, one of only nine female members of Congress, the best-dressed woman in public life (according to the Fashion Academy in New York), and the first prominent actor to run for high office. "I know I am going to win," she informed a national Democratic leader. Most of the party leaders in California, however, opposed her. They didn't like the idea of having a woman in the Senate "with whom they can't make deals," she charged. "In the House it is all right since it is like having a feather stuck in your hat, but it is not all right in the Senate."

She had fought back, campaigning furiously, barnstorming by helicopter—the first time this had been done outside Texas. An editorial cartoon portrayed her in a football helmet, stiff-arming male politicians. Another, under the title IF A BODY MEETS A BODDY, pictured Douglas and Boddy blocking each other's path, with the caption "Coming through the rye, should the Body or the Boddy let the other by?"

Tall and stately, Douglas was the number-one glamour girl of the Democratic Party, a writer for a New York newspaper observed. On the campaign trail, however, she had little time for "feminine necessities" such as getting her hair and nails done, according to the reporter, and she had already put on ten pounds, munching on candy bars to keep up her energy and consuming cakes baked for afternoon teas. Another writer observed that a woman running for the Senate has problems that never bother a "baldheaded candidate." A man goes straight to bed at night after a final speech, but a woman "has to get a shampoo at midnight. She has to go to bed with her head in a towel to dry while she sleeps."

Douglas also had to contend with the demands of two children at home. "But mother!" her eleven-year-old daughter, Mary Helen, had recently implored. "Why must you work so hard? Why can't you stay home and go swimming with me?"

When Douglas visited Santa Clara, a local columnist revealed that she had arrived for a campaign appearance right on time, "sufficiently remarkable in any woman." She looked young for her age, which was forty-nine, and the former opera diva and Hollywood star did it without the usual artifice of makeup, retouched hair, or "trick millinery." From this, the columnist concluded that she was interested "in persuading the minds of her audience, not in charming them off their feet." Still, the political attacks on the candidate grew harsher, and she was too busy defending herself from attacks by Democrats to go after her likely Republican opponent, Congressman Richard M. Nixon. Yet she told her San Diego organizer, "You know, what happens to me personally isn't very important. But that pipsqueak [Nixon] has his eye on the white House and if he ever gets there, God help us all."

Close to primary day, Douglas assured her mentor, Eleanor Roosevelt, that Boddy's Red-baiting was so excessive "it helped us." In San Francisco near the end, she led a march of women carrying grocery baskets up Market Street to protest the high cost of living. A local newspaper published a photo of a radiant Douglas surrounded by the huge crowd under the headline NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF A—. Over the radio, Douglas confidently proclaimed, "Money alone never has won and never will win an election."

Most of Nixon's advisers felt that Douglas would be a formidable foe; she was as brave and as energetic as their man, with twice the charisma. For the record, Nixon concurred, calling her "a colorful, aggressive, vote-getting candidate" who had long been underrated by the "wise boys" of politics. But privately, he and campaign strategist Murray Chotiner felt otherwise. If Senator Downey had run for reelection, the outcome, they believed, would have hinged on farm issues, not on the Communist threat.

But that all changed with Downey out. Nixon and Chotiner wanted Helen Douglas to win the nomination because her liberal politics played into the freedom-versus-socialism theme they had already decided would dominate the campaign. "There's no use trying to talk about anything else," Nixon told his northern California chairman, "because it's all the people want to hear about." This was sure to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

During their travels across the state that spring, Nixon and Douglas had rarely crossed paths. Douglas, aware of her rival's talent as a debater, avoided joint meetings. One day, however, they appeared separately in a small town in the north. Nixon's aide Bill Arnold went out to hear what she was saying, came back, and reported to his boss. This was during a phase when Douglas, angered by Nixon's gibes, sometimes lost her composure and referred to him as a "peewee" who, like Joe McCarthy, was trying to get people so scared of communism they would be afraid to turn off the lights at night.

When he heard what she had said, Nixon muttered, "Why, I'll castrate her!" That would be literally impossible, Arnold pointed out. "I don't care," Nixon responded, "I'll do it anyway!"

As a woman, Helen Douglas was particularly vulnerable to charges that she lacked the toughness to oppose the Communists. But Chotiner reminded his candidate, "You can't get into a name-calling contest with a woman. The cost in votes would be prohibitive." Still, Nixon would later admit that Douglas's emergence on the Democratic side "brightened my prospects considerably."

On primary night, Helen Douglas, dressed in a simple black dress--but still movie-star radiant--joined her mostly female staffers at her Los Angeles headquarters. She had won a solid victory, defeating Boddy by a two-to-one margin and rolling up more than 150,000 votes in the GOP primary. Her supporters, true believers, responded with whoops and hugs, as if she had already won the election. She asked much, sometimes too much, of her aides, but they remained devoted to her. Some of them felt that the voters (particularly women) admired what Douglas stood for, and she was a fabulously vibrant campaigner, so there was no way she could lose. Red-baiting had ultimately failed Boddy, so Nixon would not dare revive it.

The candidate's personal satisfaction on primary night was marred by an uncomfortable moment at headquarters involving a male volunteer, a Greyhound bus driver who demanded a private conference with her. She soon discovered that he was more interested in sexual favors than political favors. Douglas knew that the passions of a campaign often become sexually charged but still faulted herself for not recognizing the bus driver's agenda earlier.

Unlike many of her supporters, Douglas knew she was far from a shoo-in. Simple arithmetic told her that Nixon's combined vote in the GOP and the Democratic primaries exceeded one million, whereas hers did not quite reach nine hundred thousand. This in itself was not fatal, for the Democratic turnout would likely soar in November. But there was something more troubling. For nearly four years, she had observed her colleague Richard Nixon at dose range in Congress, and she knew him to be smart, dynamic, daring, a formidable speaker--and out to win at almost any cost.

A new editiion of Greg Mitchell's The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair's Race for Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics,  winner of the Goldsmith Book Prize, has just been published.

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