Christine Todd Whitman single handedly halted Bill Bradley’s presidential aspirations when she nearly beat him in a Senate race in 1990. A then unknown sacrificial lamb against an incumbent Hall of Fame basketball star. She lost by two percentage points.
“I think any man who had come that close to taking down a giant like Bill Bradley would have not had a primary for the gubernatorial nomination,” she recalled. “I had a three-way primary.”
Whitman went on to win that primary, and two gubernatorial elections, but she says, as she looks at the political landscape for women today, not much has changed from male-dominated 1990 New Jersey. The state still has had only one female governor.
“Unfortunately, but we have the potential to do better, and, in this election to turn that around, but we haven’t done as well as we could or should,” said Whitman. “I mean we have some extraordinary, bright, capable women in this state and unfortunately we haven’t seen the kind of access to positions of high decision making open for them in the way that I would’ve liked to have seen.”
A look at the state legislature finds 11 women in the 40-seat State Senate and just 25 of 80 women in Assembly seats. Only seven of the 42 county political party chairs are women. At a panel discussion hosted by the Women’s Empowerment Network, Whitman and several other politically active women shared their thoughts on why women – 50 percent of the population – make up such a small percentage of elected officials and what needs to happen for that to change.
“Speaking from experience, as someone who was not involved in politics and got involved five years ago, it’s become an awful place to be,” admitted Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi. “You have to have alligator-thick skin. It doesn’t matter who you are; doesn’t matter what your intentions are. Narratives are created that are really awful and we need to stop doing that and start discussing policy instead of personal attacks.”
Is it your sense that the more women that get involved in the political process the more likely it is that the tone will become more civil?
“I would hope so, I can’t imagine it getting worse,” said Schepisi.
This year’s Women’s March on Washington brought into sharp focus the potential political power of women. Coming off the defeat of the first major party female presidential candidate and the election of a president prone to harsh remarks about women, the prevailing sense is that women are now more motivated than ever to join the political fray. Like Elizabeth Meyer, a political neophyte who, after the election in November, became the force behind the Women’s March on New Jersey.
“There are so many labels. This person is Republican, so this is what this means; this person is Democrat, so this is what that means. And people make so many assumptions and they don’t want to hear each other and they don’t want to understand,” she said. “This is why I’m making this decision; this is why I feel this way and I think until we sort of come together, and sit at that table and listen together, then we’re not going to move forward.”
“I think what you do see is, and it really does show, that women certainly are more compromising; they approach issues differently. They approach it with real policy in mind and not egos. I am not stereotyping but generally speaking, I think you will see more women getting involved because they are passionate about what they stand for and so they are in it for the right reasons and we tend to reach over to the other side of the aisle and find common ground. I think that’s what you will see,” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle.
Hard to imagine compromise and collegiality in today’s pungent political discourse, but, at the end of this discussion the consensus – among the Republican and Democratic women – was that progress is possible, if you just change the perspective.