Reno’s bid for governor puts women out front

  • Geneva Overholser / Washington Post columnist
  • Saturday, September 8, 2001 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — In a dusty box in our basement sit old green file folders bulging with yellowed clips from my editorial-writing days in the 1980s. One is labeled "Women and Leadership." When I saw Janet Reno’s decision to run for governor of Florida, I dug it out.

The folder’s era was a lively one for the topic. A May 1987 headline reads, "A Distressed Norway Counts on Its Women To Set Things Right." Underneath is one of those Wall Street Journal subheads that have a way of rounding things up pricelessly: "Prime Minister Is a Woman, So Are Seven on Cabinet; Doing Dishes After Party."

Another clip — a 1987 Financial Times opinion piece — tells us, "How to exploit women." Any chief executive with sense, it begins, "will put women on his board, and in charge of his departments, and high on the short-list of successors to himself. There is profit in it. The reason is that it is still unusual for women to be promoted to top positions, so that, by definition, only the very best make it." Consequently, they will work harder, and "probably for less money."

While dread phrases like "post-feminism" and "the mommy track" were coming into use, changes were continuing thick and fast: "Working Mother Is Now Norm, Study Shows," says a 1988 headline. There were thrilling notes, too, such as Corazon Aquino’s being named Time’s Woman of the Year, for having revolutionized a nation "dominated for decades by … macho politics."

Also in the folder is a pamphlet from a speech I later gave at Stanford, called, "Women in Leadership: So Promising a Prospect, So Complex a Reality."

I can say that again.

I don’t mean that nothing has changed. As President Clinton’s attorney general rises to challenge President Bush’s brother in Florida, we see interesting examples of women in power everywhere. They’re still very much the minority, but what’s new is how many different kinds of women now become leaders.

When I worked on Capitol Hill 25 years ago, there seemed to be two options for women in Congress. You could be a Liz Holtzman, all cerebral and spare, nary a touch of femininity. Or you could be a Pat Schroeder, covering your intelligence and lawyerliness with every womanly emotional flounce available.

But look at us now. In the Senate alone, we have a Democrat from New York who is a former first lady, and a Republican from Texas who — at 58 — has just adopted her first child. We have a software tycoon and a self-described "mom in tennis shoes," both from Washington state — which joins California and Maine in having two women senators.

And now comes one of the most original women around, throwing her hat into the ring against the odds of illness, image and a formidable incumbent. Here is a political figure who loathes spin and shuns publicity. "I feel I’m intruding on people," she told one reporter. "I’ve just not cared for it." A woman who orders one blue dress after another from a catalog — whose very lack of affectation is perhaps what draws her the most attention.

She was a controversial attorney general from the start — the unmarried woman selected after two nominees were thrown over for nanny problems.

"I clearly became A.G. because I am a woman," Reno said, eschewing the silly pretense accompanying so many first-ever appointments. At the end, though, she remained unbowed by Waco and Elian, an edgy relationship with her boss or even the effects of Parkinson’s disease. She left office headed straight for New York and a surprise appearance on "Saturday Night Live." Bursting out of a fake wall onto a set where the tall fellow who had long impersonated her was holding forth, she cried, "It’s Reno time."

Now, back in Florida, she’s hoping that’s true. Riding around the state in her red pickup truck, she says she has sensed "something out there" that she feels she can respond to. "If you could survive eight years in Washington, with the press corps in Washington, with Congress in Washington, and go at it as I did, and then come home and kayak down the Chattooga, the Nantahala and the Ocoee in three days and come out of it without having stumped your boat, you’re doing pretty good," she told CNN in May. "I think I can do it, otherwise I wouldn’t be here."

The conventional wisdom is that incumbent Jeb Bush will swamp her, and that seems likely to me. But who knows? Win or lose, Reno will have shown us yet another piece of the rich diversity that now fits into this "Women and Leadership" folder.

Geneva Overholser can be reached at The Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071-9200 or

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