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Yeakel Decries Sexism During Run for Senate

By Sarah Y. Keightley
News Editor

Lynn Yeakel, the Democratic contender in the 1992 Pennsylvania senatorial race, called the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings "the catalyst" of her campaign.

In a talk with about 30 students yesterday in Twenty Chimneys, Yeakel, who ran against the incumbent Republican Senator Arlen Specter, spoke about sexism in relation to the media and the electoral process, current political reforms, and her campaign experiences.

In February 1992, Yeakel decided to enter the race. Specter was on the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Hill's testimony regarding alleged sexual harassment by Thomas, a nominee to the Supreme Court.

A few months later Yeakel won the five-way Democratic primary, but lost the main November election by a close margin. She won 47 percent of the vote even though Specter spent twice as much on his campaign than she did.

`Year of the Woman'

The "Year of the Woman" resulted in both positive and negative outcomes, Yeakel said. The number of women elected to federal office "reached an inflection point on the bell curve." But women only make up less than 10 percent of the representation in Congress.

"We still have a long way to go," she said. Most of the women running were in races for open seats -- new seats that resulted from redistricting and seats vacated by retiring incumbents. Only two women actually succeeded in unseating incumbents, and this occurred in House races, not Senate ones. She said that changes in campaign finance laws are one way to correct this.

She added that the "Year of the Woman" is merely a media phrase; however, the movement was not just a one-year occurrence -- it is a beginning. "Hopefully a more diverse population will be running for office" in the future, she said.

Another positive aspect of the 1992 election year is that the new Clinton administration is sensitive to issues of sexual harassment and other women's issues, including the recent passing of the Family Leave Act and the lifting of the abortion gag rule, she said.

Sexism in the media

This year's female candidates encountered sexism, including double standards and unfair treatment, Yeakel said.

Yeakel said she encountered the worse instances of sexism in the media. Allnewspaper articles written about her included a description of her clothes, hair, and jewelry. One article mentioned that she was wearing a light jacket and a short black skirt. When she was on a call-in talk show, several people called in to comment on her clothes. Yeakel believes this illustrates society's ambivalence about women's abilities, particularly those of women in power.

Moreover, several newspaper articles included her age, a fact that was often omitted in pieces about male candidates. She specifically mentioned a New York Times article which mentioned Specter and the other candidates running in the Democratic primary. She was the only one of the five who had her age with her name.

While she wanted to focus on substantive issues, the media focused on superficial things. "It's offensive," she said. "This puts the woman candidate in a different category."

In political campaigns, women are often defined in relation to men. During her race, she said that Specter's comments often addressed what her husband and others around her did or said, rather than her own actions or statements.""

Yeakel illustrated her point with an example: Most of the female candidates campaigned without their families, while the stereotypical picture of male candidates is with their adoring wives and children standing by them. There is an assumption that female candidates' husbands have their careers and are off doing something important, she said.

Also, there are unfair expectations of women candidates. After winning the primary, Yeakel said she was elevated to being a "perfect" person, with impossible expectations to fill. Yet, people also expected her to sling mud when other candidates did it to her. But these two messages are in conflict, she said.

Furthermore, Yeakel mentioned that a lot of sexism exists in the attitudes of old party politics.

Fixing the problems

To correct these problems, we need to develop much stronger support systems for women, such as Emily's List and the National Women's Campaign Fund, Yeakel said.

Responding to a question about campaign finance reform, Yeakel said there should be strong incentives for voluntary spending caps in exchange for public financing. This would give candidates an option to limit their spending. She said that in her case, "The money differential was the key." With campaign finance reform, she believes she would have won the race. Also, candidates need "much more access to television opportunities where they can present substantive messages."

Still, the benefits of running for office far out-weighed the costs, she said. This is "encouraging a continuation of the momentum." We need to talk about double standards, unfair treatment, and other forms of sexism, she added.

During the campaign, there was "mutual support and conversation" between the women candidates, she said. "We've all really got to help each other," she said.

Asked if she would support candidates just because they are women, Yeakel responded that she would support people with the same values -- people who supported women's rights -- but not necessarily all women candidates. People should not vote for someone just because she is a woman, Yeakel said.

Women should be considered because they have different perspectives and experiences, as well as different ways of making decisions, Yeakel added. According to studies, women tend to involve more people in their decision-making. Also, they tend to make their decisions in public, not behind closed doors. As an outsider, she was "bringing the politics of experience, not the experience of politics."

Yeakel also said that being a woman was occasionally an advantage during the campaign. When Senator Carol Mosely-Braun (D-Ill.) won her Illinois primary, for example, it put the spotlight on Yeakel's race. Still, this was a "double-edged sword" because excessive scrutiny and publicity became negative.

Campaign advice, child-care

Yeakel was asked to give practical advice she learned from campaigning. First, potential candidates should look for elections that are within reach, she said. Though she knows that she could have won her race, she noted that she was running against an incumbent. Even though media coverage last year focused on public discontent with incumbents, 93 percent of incumbents retained their seats.

Furthermore, she said she needed to be better prepared than she was after winning the primary. She needed more money and staff workers. Women should use "our economic power to help each other move forward." She said that the day after the primary, she was $200,000 in debt and had inadequate staff, while Specter had $3 million in his war chest and immediately put her on the defensive.

Yeakel said that there is no single most important issue for women because all women's issues are connected. She did say, however, that child-care should play a role on the national agenda. And she noted that this is not a women's issue, this is an "issue of increasing importance for all Americans." She thinks President Clinton could have done a better job using the controversy surrounding his search for an attorney general nominee to address child care. "In many ways, this holds a woman back now, just as reproductive freedom once did." She also said that issues of violence need to be addressed.

Yeakel said she plans to run for the Senate again. Presently, she may take a position in the Department of Health and Human Services, working with Secretary Donna Shalala. Currently Yeakel is president of Women's Way USA, an organization which funds abuse shelters, women's health-care, and other projects.