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Michele Willens

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Today's Female Leaders Have Chutzpah, But What Happened to Class?

Posted: 10/11/10 09:15 AM ET

There is no shortage of embarrassing male candidates making their cases as we speak (here in New York, I hope we will soon put bombastic gubernatorial wannabe Carl Paladino behind us), and the idea of female candidates, blessedly, is no longer a novelty. Still, I find myself humiliated to be sharing a gender with a number of them who are either seemingly lacking in brain power or spending loads of money on ugly advertising. (Sharron Angle managed to get Viagra and child molesters in one ad against Harry Reid.) Those talented ladies of "Saturday Night Live" have never had it so good.

For starters, we have Angle in Nevada, Linda McMahon in Connecticut, Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman in California, and, of course, Christine O'Donnell in Delaware. Some are Tea Party types, some former CEOs who failed upward and/or treated other women badly (which, according to her weepy illegal nanny, Meg Whitman has continued to do). I respect their chutzpah getting out there and attempting to perform public service. And I recall Madeleine Albright's warning that "there's a place in Hell for women who don't support other women." But I would think the 2008 presidential election pretty much did away with that idea.

Amid all this, I find myself thinking back on Helen Gahagan Douglas who, in an infamous 1950 U.S Senate race in California, refused to stoop to the vicious level of her opponent, a young Congressman named Richard Nixon. I confess here to extreme bias: Douglas became my instant heroine in 1973 when, during the height of Watergate, she made a rare appearance in Los Angeles. I don't remember the particulars, but I do recall that she wore a pink wool suit. Douglas was always accused of lacking a sense of humor. But considering that Nixon's campaign had fatally dubbed her The Pink Lady, I'd like to think that suit proved otherwise. By the way, that was one of Nixon's nicer tactics in their race.

Even though we tried to get her to express some sense of vindication that day, Douglas professed only sorrow for the country she loved so much. She smiled ruefully when asked if she was aware that people had started wearing buttons that said, "Don't blame me, I voted for Helen Gahagan Douglas." (The name of the play I later co-wrote, by the way.)

What would this truly principled lady have thought of a Christine O'Donnell, or a Sarah Palin, for that matter? It is not just that her politics were diametrically opposed to theirs, but she was intelligent and informed and stayed strictly on message. When her advisers and occasionally even her husband, the great actor Melvyn Douglas, urged her to hit back at Nixon, she wouldn't do it. It lost her the election but as she later said, "I woke up the next day feeling free, uninjured and whole."

Helen Gahagan Douglas, unlike this current crop of candidates, was a political role model for women when there were very few. Just about the only other visible woman of substance at the time was Helen's great friend Eleanor Roosevelt. As a member of Congress, she was joined by Clare Booth Luce, albeit on the other side of the aisle. The two shared true glamor (Helen had previously been a Broadway star and opera singer) and pedigree, but when the press tried to create a cat fight, they would not succumb. Helen was ahead of her time on issues like health care, fighting cancer, the nuclear arms race and civil rights (she de-segregated the lunchroom in the House). She was an officeholder, activist, wife and mother when any one of those was a challenge.

I guess I am always looking for a reason to keep Helen Gahagan Douglas alive: not easy as those who remember 1950 fade away. Maybe it will take George Clooney producing a movie about her. In the meantime, the current class of female candidates is so inferior that I yearn to see the classy woman in pink once again.