The number of women serving in the U.S. Senate today remains disturbingly small, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of my home state of New York reminded us in an appearance on Bill Maher's HBO show this past weekend. The current number is 20, or one in five in the chamber, a percentage well below many other nations in the Western world. Several are in tough re-election battles this autumn. Gillibrand (who recently gained headlines with claims in her new book about sexual remarks to her by male colleagues) made the case for electing more women, not just for how they view some issues in a more progressive way than most men, but because they are more collegial and might actually work together to, gasp, get some things done.
But this must be added: At least there are more than a handful of women now on Capitol Hill, and several exert real power. This was hardly the case just a few years ago. And, further back, as of 1950, only three women had ever served in that boys' club, mainly as appointees filling out their husband's term.
That year, near the height of anti-Communist hysteria America, a race in California might have opened doors for women a lot earlier if a certain woman had won.
Helen Gahagan Douglas, an intelligent, attractive former actress and liberal activist -- and three-term Democratic congresswoman from Los Angeles -- ran for an open Senate seat. Her opponent: a young Republican named Richard Milhous Nixon. It was the campaign that would earn him a nickname that stuck: Tricky Dick. His team would call her the Pink Lady. I wrote about the campaign a few years ago in a Random House book, Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady. It probed the contest in the context of the Red Scare but also, as the subtitle had it, "Sexual Politics." Indeed, Douglas would become a feminist icon in the 1970s.
Just to give you an idea of what Douglas--then one of only nine women in the House -- faced: It all began in the primary even before she got described as "pink right down to her underwear" by Nixon.
"I know I am going to win," she had 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 against her opponent, Manchester Boddy, barnstorming by helicopter -- the first time this had been done outside Texas. But an editorial cartoon, under the title "If a Body meets a Boddy," pictured the two candidates blocking each other's path, with the caption "Coming through the rye, should the Body or the Boddy let the other by?"
Well, Douglas, a mother of two (and married to film star Melvyn Douglas), would win the primary -- with the help of her female-heavy campaign staff and local organizers -- but then suffer defeat in the general election after Nixon and his team waged a vicious Red-baiting and gender-mocking campaign. Nixon privately had promised to "castrate" Douglas and in the end succeeded, despite support for him by, among others, Lauren Bacall and Eleanor Roosevelt. Nixon even played the anti-Semite card, calling Douglas "Mrs. Hesselberg" -- referring to her husband's former name.
One of the most amazing, and revealing, aspects of the 1950 race, as detailed in my book, was that another young and rising member of Congress, John F. Kennedy, of Massachusetts would back Nixon in this race and his father would make a big donation to the Republican's campaign. I would write about it for John F, Kennedy Jr.'s magazine George. (See part of the story here.)
In 1960, Helen Douglas went to Wisconsin to campaign in the presidential primary on behalf of Sen. Hubert Humphrey (who had stumped for her in 1950). He was facing John F. Kennedy. That fall, Kennedy's opponent would be Richard Nixon, and Douglas felt compelled to endorse the Democrat. Kennedy privately admitted that he had supported Nixon against Douglas, calling it "the biggest damnfool mistake I ever made." No kidding.