Gender gaffe

IT HAS BEEN one thing after another for Christine Todd Whitman, the Republican who is running for governor of New Jersey against the incumbent Democrat, Gov. Jim Florio.

There was the day she was reduced to offering a photo op of cows and pigs at her hunt-country home to defend her farmland tax breaks. There was the day she fired her campaign manager, who was also her brother. The bus for her bus tour had car trouble.


But the darkest day of the Whitman campaign, from a feminist voter's perspective, was the day the National Organization for Women recommended her as New Jersey's next governor.

A charter member of the organization quit over that action, calling it "utterly stupid." It was also bad for women.


Just like the guy who opines that he could never put the fate of the nation in the hands of a girl, NOW's support of Mrs. Whitman seemed to signal that gender is all that matters.

It's been a year since the much-ballyhooed Year of the Woman ended with six women in the U.S. Senate, symbols of an access to influence that American women had never had before.

We learned in the course of that year that voters often expect more of women candidates than they do of male ones -- strength and understanding, toughness and empathy, leadership and the common touch. But just because the world often demands more of women, it doesn't mean we should sometimes even the balance by settling for less.

Mrs. Whitman has run a lackluster campaign in a race that was once considered a no-brainer for the challenger. She has had to fight an aristocratic crop-and-jodhpurs image, all the baggage that goes with a seven-figure income.

But no one should be penalized simply for being rich; Mrs. Whitman's big problem is that she hasn't kept up with the voters.

She has been running against the Jim Florio of three years ago, who raised taxes and fomented a citizen revolt so intense that, driving on the turnpike in 1990, it sometimes seemed every car had a "Dump Florio" bumper sticker except for the governor's sedan.

There is still a hard core of those people, but much of the most virulent anti-Florio fervor has subsided, and Mrs. Whitman needed more than history to defeat him.

There was no more: no vision thing, no sweeping programs, no there there, until one day she announced that she would cut taxes by 30 percent over three years, a proposal so disconnected from the reality of modern government that it was breathtaking -- and laughable.


Which brings us back to the NOW nod, which today seems even more ill wrought than when it was first announced.

The organization said it could not support Mr. Florio because of his welfare reform law, which denies additional benefits to women who have more children while on public assistance.

The law is the worst thing the Florio administration has done, mean-spirited and simple-minded, suggesting that sending kids to bed hungry is a useful way to teach their mothers responsibility.

But Mrs. Whitman, too, supports the law, and every indication is that she would continue to do so. NOW chose to soft-pedal that. And it chose to ignore the governor's staunch support of gun control -- women get shot, too -- and his outspoken stand on a woman's right to a legal abortion during his last campaign, when it might have been more politic to downplay the issue.

NOW ignored the courage of his tax plan, which was fiscally necessary but might well have cost him re-election. It supported Mrs. Whitman, who now offers a free lunch. Time was when voters might have fallen for that, but now they're way ahead of her -- phony baloney, and everybody knows it.

NOW criticized the number of Mr. Florio's female cabinet appointments. But except for the fact that Mrs. Whitman is female, there is little evidence, in her campaign organization or her alliances, that she would do better.


Gender matters. But when it's the only thing that matters, we are back to square one.

All things being equal, I would choose a woman over a man in order to even the balance of power, to insinuate a different perspective into the process, to give young women something to shoot for and someone to look up to. But all things are rarely equal. And certainly not in the New Jersey gubernatorial race.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.