Women: What do they want, anyway?


HAVRE DE GRACE -- What is it about Parris Glendening that brings out the bully in the tender gender?

Not only is he personally courteous to women, but as he probably owes his election as governor of Maryland to them, he has a special appreciation for their support. So it's odd that his own Democratic party seems to be filled with ambitious ladies whose greatest desire is to kick sand in his face.

You'd think instead they'd love him to bits. He doesn't exude old-fashioned male chauvinism, or embody distasteful patriarchal values. He's their kind of man, or at least the kind of New Age man they're supposed to admire -- sensitive, well-meaning, compassionate, caring, sharing and all that.

Like Bill Clinton, he can talk Women's Issues with the fluency to make Donna Shalala and Pat Schroeder wriggle with delight. But he isn't all talk. He's appointed scores of women to important jobs in state government, even choosing one as his running mate, a feat Mr. Clinton hasn't matched.

On the debit side, he may lack Mr. Clinton's, um, animal magnetism in the arena of interpersonal relations. There may be just the faintest trace of wimpiness in his bespectacled demeanor, and he does sometimes look impossibly smug, as though butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. But why should those angry ladies care about that? He isn't running for commandant of the Marine Corps, after all.

Besides, he's still the incumbent governor of Maryland -- a powerful politician indeed, heir to the mantle of Millard Tawes and other legendary leaders. Women are said to be supremely practical, and it's certainly much more practical to have a governor as a friend than an enemy.

A governor can make appointments, issue executive orders, pardon felons and dispense unofficial grease in a thousand ways on behalf of those who befriend him. And as Mr. Glendening is only halfway through his first term, he might easily be in office for six more years. That could mean a considerable amount of grease.

Yet here is Nancy Grasmick, the Maryland superintendent of schools, encouraging newspaper speculation that when Mr. Glendening seeks another term in 1998, she might run against him on behalf of the schoolchildren of the state.

Ms. Fiscal Prudence

And over here is Eileen Rehrmann, the Democratic governess -- county executive, I mean -- of Harford County. Lately she's been positioning herself as Ms. Fiscal Prudence, the presumptive candidate of the taxpayer, and chatting about balanced budgets and tax relief with discontented tycoons unhappy with Maryland's current governance.

Neither lady has been explicitly critical of the governor, but each has managed to make it clear that she believes she could do a better job if given the chance.

Mrs. Rehrmann doesn't call the governor a tax-and-spend liberal of the old school, and she doesn't point out that when he was a county executive he spent Prince George's County into a giant hole. But she does remain demurely silent when others say such things. Mrs. Grasmick, for her part, tacitly dares the governor to fire her.

The explanation for this simmering hostility to Mr. Glendening, especially on the part of influential women who might have been expected to be his allies, lies in the on-going feminization of his national political party and a related dispute over the spoils of victory.

Plainly, if it were not for their considerable female support, the Democrats would by now have lost all hope of winning any major elections. They would have become a fringe organization of militant vegans, public-sector unionists, miscellaneous loopy visionaries and assorted grievance peddlers. Instead they still hold the presidency and a few governorships, including Maryland's.

Because they were the ones who grabbed the controls and wrenched the old Democratic vehicle away from the precipice, many women in politics quite understandably now want to be left alone to do the rest of the driving without male interference. Some will be satisfied if the men will just go along for the ride and keep their mouths shut. Others, the Thelma-and-Louise faction, would just as soon pitch the guys out of the car altogether.

None of this intra-party contention is necessarily reflective of overall American public opinion. Out in the wider world, plenty of women have no interest in feminized politics, and plenty of unfeminized men -- even angry white ones -- will cheerfully vote for like-minded women to represent them at any level of government.

That complicates matters still more for poor Governor Glendening. For once he escapes the women in his own party, he's probably going to have to confront a much more serious challenge from Ellen Sauerbrey -- or whoever else the unfeminized opposition sends after him.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 9/22/96

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