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Female Vets Put Military Mettle in House Races

Thursday, August 3, 2006

Four female veterans are running for Congress. Even if some of them don't win, observers say they are challenging stereotypes about women being weak on military and foreign policy and will make it easier for women to seek and win political office.

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Mishonda Baldwin during Operation Desert Storm.

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)--When Maryland Democrat Mishonda Baldwin is on the campaign trail, parents often ask if they can introduce her to their daughters.

That's partly because she is such an anomaly, says Baldwin, a decorated veteran of the first war in Iraq who has also served as an intelligence officer and as a U.S. delegate to Egypt and Jordan for the American Council of Young Political Leaders, a nonprofit organization that sponsors international exchange programs.

"When you lay out my background and my experience and my young age, most people are absolutely flabbergasted," she told Women's eNews. "Women in particular are just absolutely thrilled; they're like, 'This is the best thing since sliced bread!'"

Baldwin is one of only four women with military experience known to be running for Congress in this year's midterm elections.

That small number also happens to be a record, says Gilda Morales, a researcher at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. And it is one that she says will go a long way toward changing the popular perception that women are less capable than men on foreign policy and national security.

"These women have more face credibility," says Marie Wilson, president of the White House Project, a group in New York dedicated to electing a female president. "Whether men have been in war or not, people project that on to male candidates because people have seen men primarily on the front lines in movies or in history. Women are still having to prove their toughness."

Sea Change in Attitudes

But Wilson takes heart from a recent "sea change" in voter attitudes. She cites a 2005 poll commissioned by the White House Project that showed "a growing belief" that men and women are equally suited to handle the complex issues of foreign policy and national security. Fifty-four percent of those polled said a female leader would be no different from a male leader in handling issues of foreign policy and 55 percent said there would be no difference between a male and female leader on issues of homeland security.

That is a "stunning" shift in voter attitudes, Wilson says. "Traditionally that's been a real sticking point for women."

But Baldwin and her fellow female veteran congressional candidates--Democrats Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Republicans Heather Wilson of New Mexico and Martha Rainville of Vermont--are shielded from any lingering stereotypes.

"I can talk about health care and I can talk about the FISA courts," Baldwin told Women's eNews, referring to the controversial federal court that handles requests from the FBI for warrants to monitor suspected foreign agents within the United States. "We're like this new untried commodity in the political sphere. What people are finding is that we're tough, we're credible, but by the same token we haven't lost sight of our progressiveness."

While there are only four known female veterans in the House races--compared to well over 100 male veterans running for election or reelection to the House--their impact is often expanded by media attention. Duckworth, for instance, was little known when she threw her hat in the ring last year. But since then she has become a central figure in the Democrats' bid to retake the House of Representatives. That's due in great part to her compelling story about co-piloting a Black Hawk helicopter that was struck down in November 2004 when a rocket-propelled grenade hit the cockpit and exploded.

Campaigns Affect Public Views

"We finally do have this core group of women who are running this year," says Barb Palmer, a professor of political science at American University in Washington, D.C., and co-author of "Breaking the Political Glass Ceiling," a book about women in politics published earlier this year. "Regardless of whether they succeed, they are contributing to the downfall of those perceptions."

The stereotype about women and war is one of two main hurdles still blocking a woman's road to the White House, says Dianne Bystrom, professor of political science at Iowa State University in Ames, who has a specialty in women and politics. The other is the view that women with young children cannot handle political office. Women, she says, face tougher scrutiny about the state of their marriages and the number and age of their children than do men.

Bystrom sees the stereotype of women and war easing in 2006 and beyond, thanks not only to female veteran candidates but also to female soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and to the appointment of women to positions of authority on international issues.

The most prominent of these are secretaries of state Madeline Albright, a Democrat who served under President Clinton, and Condoleezza Rice, a Republican serving under President Bush. Women in lower offices are also combating stereotypes by serving in positions that identify them with foreign policy. As women increase their numbers in the House and Senate, more are gaining recognition for their service on committees that deal with veterans' issues, military affairs and intelligence.

"As more women come into these offices, the likelihood is that people will not think of them as anything less than men," said Morales.

Baldwin Trails in Fundraising

Baldwin is one of eight Democrats running in a crowded field in Maryland's Sept. 12 primary for the seat vacated by Rep. Ben Cardin, a Democrat running for the Senate. Baldwin has raised $26,000, far less than many of her competitors. John Sarbanes, another Democrat in the race who is the son of retiring Sen. Paul Sarbanes, has raised nearly $790,000, according to the Federal Election Commission.

Political oddsmakers give the three other female veterans better chances for victory. GOP Rep. Heather Wilson, a former Air Force officer and currently the only female veteran serving in Congress, has a slight edge in her race against Democrat Patricia Madrid. Before winning her Albuquerque, N.M., House seat in 1998, she served on the National Security Council staff at the White House.

Two other women--Duckworth, who lost both her legs in Iraq in 2004, and Rainville, who in 1997 became the first woman to serve in the influential position of state adjutant general of the National Guard--are considered formidable challengers in their open seat races.

Duckworth locked up her party's nomination in March and will face Republican Pete Roskam in what is expected to be one of the most closely fought races this fall. Rainville is favored to win her party's Sept. 12 primary; if she does, she will be a formidable candidate in this Democratic-leaning district representing the entire state of Vermont.

Another female veteran--Democrat Karen Otter of California--lost a primary contest for a House seat in June. She served in Army units in Oklahoma and Germany.

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women's eNews.

 
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