From Carly Fiorina to Nancy Pelosi, 2010 Is the Year of the Rich Woman

A new kind of female candidate emerged this week: rich, self-made and Republican. Clara Bingham looks at women in politics, then and now.

To say that women have come along way since the first woman was elected to Congress was the $71 million understatement this week.

Consider Jeanette Rankin, the seamstress and teacher from Montana who took up politics after visiting the slums of Boston at the turn of the century. She participated in the Suffragettes' march on Washington and then got elected to Congress as a Republican in 1917—three years before women even got the vote nation-wide.

As Murray once famously observed: “Once you’ve worked in daycare, you can work anywhere.”

Now look at Meg Whitman, who took up politics after a string of corporate gigs that began with a job as brand manager at Procter & Gamble and ended with her as the CEO of eBay. During her three decades in business, Whitman managed to amass a significant fortune, spending $71 million of her own money on her primary campaign for the California GOP gubernatorial nomination.

Clearly, the power of the purse has taken on a new historic meaning for female candidates.

“There is a new profile of women running for office,” says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “As opposed to the candidates who used to work their way up through the system, these women are on a fast track from the private sector.”

Reihan Salam: How Ethnic Can Our Politicians Be?Seventy years ago, Margaret Chase Smith took the “widow’s bench” by winning her late husband’s seat in the House after he died of a heart attack. The “Lady from Maine,” as she became known, had been her husband’s secretary before his death and eventually became the first woman to be elected to both the House and the Senate, serving until her defeat in 1972.

Smith, and the trailblazers before her, made history because their outsider status gave them the freedom to perform acts of political courage. In June 1950, at the height of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s red-baiting campaign, Smith was the only senator with the guts to call his bluff, declaring from the Senate floor that the American people were “sick and tired of seeing innocent people smeared and guilty people whitewashed.” Her “Declaration of Conscience” lived up to the suffrage movement’s promise that once women could vote, and enter political office, they would bring morality to politics, and turn the country away from war and corruption.

The class of 1992—the record number of women candidates who were propelled into the House and Senate after an all-white, all-male Judiciary Committee enraged women across America with their grilling of Anita Hill—was also seen as anti-Establishment outsiders, agents of change who fought special interests. Political action committees that year gave a record amount of money to female candidates, and the unprecedented sum of $11.5 million allowed half of the women to outspend their male opponents, an election-year first.

The class of 2010 is making history because these candidates are rich, self-made, and mostly Republican. Move over, Patty Murray, who campaigned as “just a mom in tennis shoes.” Hello, Carly Fiorina! The former Hewlett-Packard CEO just spent $5.5 million of her own money to beat Rep. Tom Campbell and Assemblyman Chuck DeVore.

Walsh points out that the two Republican candidates for governor and Senate in California—Whitman and Fiorina—are not the only successful businesswomen running for higher office. In Florida, Alex Sink, a former Bank of America executive, is running in the Democratic gubernatorial primary (even if her bank credentials seem to have hurt her), and in Connecticut, the Aug. 10 primary could yield a victory for Linda McMahon. Last month, former Rep. Rob Simmons, once the presumptive nominee, bowed out of the race, citing McMahon’s financial advantage. The queen of World Wrestling Entertainment has pledged to spend as much as $50 million of her own money on the Senate race.

Money clearly matters. But so, too, does geography. It seems the West is a political frontier.

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At the turn of the century, it was Western states such as Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado that first granted women’s suffrage. Rankin won in Montana and seven years later, Nellie Taylor Ross, a Democrat from Wyoming, became the first woman to be elected governor in the country.

Since then, a woman from California, Nancy Pelosi, has reached the apex of American politics as Speaker of the House. Other Californians—Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer—wield gavels on, respectively, Select Committees on Intelligence, and Environment and Public Works. And the “mom in tennis shoes”? Today, she chairs a powerful Appropriations subcommittee, and her state of Washington has both a female governor and two woman senators.

“Once you’ve worked in daycare, you can work anywhere,” Murray once famously observed. But these days, it seems, the road to the Washington goes through the board room.

Clara Bingham is the co-author of Class Action: The Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law and author of Women on the Hill: Challenging the Culture of Congress. A former Newsweek correspondent who covered the first Bush White House, Bingham has also written for Vanity Fair, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Washington Monthly, and Talk.