By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 23, 2006
Their biographies exude machismo: James Webb, the Marine firing his M50 antitank rifles in the jungles of Vietnam, and George Allen, the tobacco-chewing cowboy who as governor once stirred GOP delegates with this line about Democrats: "Let's enjoy knocking their soft teeth down their whining throats."
But Webb, the former Navy secretary, and Allen, the first-term Republican senator, are trying to soften their tough-guy personas as they appeal to the 1.9 million women who represent more than half of Virginia voters. The candidates are virtually tied among likely female voters, a recent Washington Post poll shows.
Allen put his Democratic challenger on the defensive early in the campaign over a magazine article Webb penned 27 years ago that questioned a woman's place at the U.S. Naval Academy and on the battlefield. Webb, who led a Marine rifle platoon in Vietnam, has tried to convince Virginia women that his controversial words reflected a turbulent era, not personal hostility.
Webb has hesitated to address Allen's record on women. But in Allen's 23 years in politics, some votes and policies have dogged him. As governor in the 1990s, Allen said he would accept an invitation to a males-only country club but changed his mind amid criticism. He also opposed coeducation at the Virginia Military Institute. In Congress, he opposed federal legislation giving women unpaid leave after the birth of a child.
Both candidates say their positions have evolved. Webb says that he opened up doors to women as President Ronald Reagan's Navy secretary in the 1980s and that his policies in that era have had a lasting -- and positive -- effect on women's role in the military. Allen argues that when the courts ordered that women be admitted to VMI, he ensured that women were welcomed at the state institution. He also says his policies on crime, education and other issues appeal to women and families.
Whoever can move female voters onto his side may very well win the race, which recent polls show is virtually even. Successful Virginia Democrats, such as Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and his predecessor Mark R. Warner, have held leads among women heading into Election Day, according to preelection polling. Webb might have to win over more women than recent polls suggest he has if he is to win his challenge against Allen.
In a race in which traditional women's issues such as abortion have been largely absent, controversy has instead centered on Webb's past writing and Allen's past votes and policies. Webb is trying to convince voters that he's changed. Allen is arguing that his emphasis on family values appeals to Virginia women.
Records and interviews show that Webb did increase opportunities for women as Navy secretary, but some critics argue that he did so under pressure from superiors.
Webb's article, "Women Can't Fight," appeared in Washingtonian magazine in 1979, three years after women entered the Naval Academy. He questioned their place at an institution whose primary function was to train men as combat leaders. "By attempting to sexually sterilize the Naval Academy environment in the name of equality, this country has sterilized the whole process of combat leadership training, and our military forces are doomed to suffer the consequences," he wrote.
The article has haunted his career. Navy women in the late 1970s were limited to traditional career fields of nursing, administration and communication. Few shipboard assignments were open to them. They were fighting for credibility in nontraditional roles. And many said Webb's words subjected them to hostility.
"It was the talk of the Navy," recalled Linda Postenrieder, a retired surface warfare officer who graduated in the third class to include women at Annapolis. "Even guys who were supportive were asking us why were we there."
Postenrieder denounced the article at an Allen news conference last month and asked Webb to apologize. He did, and she now supports him.
Webb's defenders say his words should be seen in the context of a generation of Vietnam veterans who had endured grueling combat conditions.
"The environment he saw was not one women belonged in," recalled Leon "Bud" Edney, who was chief of naval personnel under Webb. Edney said Webb "had a deep, visceral feeling" that if a man saw a wounded woman, it would be "completely destabilizing."
Edney was commandant of midshipmen at Annapolis after the release of "Women Can't Fight." He would not let Webb speak there because of the furor. Nevertheless, he said, "It's difficult to take someone's actions coming out of a failed war in Vietnam and fast-forward 27 years to say he is hostile to women."
Webb called the article an "overreach" and said he is now comfortable with the combat roles of Navy women, who today are restricted only from submarines and service as Navy Seals.
Shortly after he began his stint under Reagan, Webb assembled a task force to report on how to increase women's presence on ships. In part, the goal was to grow the pool of recruits: The Reagan administration was pursuing a buildup of its Navy fleet ships with an all-volunteer force. And women were hitting barriers to promotion and complaining of harassment.
"We tried to create fairness, and we did it in the right way," Webb said.
Under threat of a lawsuit, Webb ordered that female civilian technicians be allowed on submarines for short sea trials to test new equipment. Then a bombshell hit.
A panel of senior Pentagon advisers on the status of women in the military issued a damning report on Navy women in the Pacific. Women faced demands for sexual favors and commanders who ignored their complaints, and they were being denied promotions.
Webb responded by opening thousands of new assignments for women, many of them closer to combat, allowing them to serve aboard logistics and ammunition ships, oilers and other vessels, according to records and interviews with former Navy officials. Women also could serve on reconnaissance aircraft based ashore. Webb also required naval officers to receive expanded training on sexual harassment.
Webb has said he opened as many as 18,000 assignments for women, the largest number in Navy history. Reports on Navy operations from the late 1980s put the number at 9,000 to 10,000. "The bottom line is it's in the thousands," Webb spokeswoman Kristian Denny Todd said.
Webb stresses that the changes during his 11-month tenure in the late 1980s were his initiative. But officials who served with him recalled that the pressure on top Pentagon officials to improve women's status was enormous.
"Webb came along at a time when the currents were moving faster than the leadership," said David Baker, a Navy special assistant under Webb. "He had the sense to realize which way the wind was blowing."
Today, five women hold top positions on Webb's campaign staff. He recently picked up endorsements from six high-ranking retired female Army and Navy officers. His wife, Hong Le Webb, is an accomplished securities lawyer, and his ex-wife, Jo Ann Krukar, is active in his campaign.
The Allen-Webb race has barely touched on concerns that dominated Virginia politics in the past: abortion, gun control and pay equity. Today, Webb, a Republican-turned-Democrat who supports abortion rights, cites the growth of inequality, pressures on the middle class and his support for stem cell research. Allen, an abortion opponent, stresses national security and his leadership in guiding women to pursue careers in science and math.
Allen once expressed doubts similar to Webb's on women in the military, calling the government "nannies and pests" on a mission to destroy VMI. It was only when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1996 that single-sex education discriminated against women that he changed his position. Allen aides say that even though he didn't want women at VMI, once the court ruled, he accepted them and worked to make the process of integration go smoothly.
As governor, he pushed successfully for student testing, the abolition of parole and one of the country's toughest welfare-to-work rules, policies his aides say were welcomed by many women. Teenagers were required in 1997 to notify their parents before having an abortion, a law that opened the door to a slew of restrictions by the General Assembly. In the Senate, Allen has opposed Plan B, the emergency contraception pill, for over-the-counter sales.
"He's a genuinely very pleasant guy who's got magnetism," said Karen Raschke, president of the Virginia League for Planned Parenthood and the group's lobbyist when Allen was governor. "But he did terrific damage to women in the commonwealth. . . . He seems to believe in a very activist involvement of the government on the side of one-half of the population."
As a congressman, Allen voted against the Family and Medical Leave Act, which gives workers 12 weeks of unpaid leave for the birth of a child or to care for a sick family member. He said the bill, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993, was a burden on businesses.
These stands plagued Allen in his campaigns for governor and for Senate in 2000. But he fended them off. Loyalists say his record reflects the strong family values that matter to women in a traditional state. "Parental notification was a major piece of legislation that enjoyed large majority support," campaign manager Dick Wadhams said. He noted that welfare reform included a crackdown on absentee fathers to pay child support, a policy with appeal to women.
Women account for 14 of his 50 Senate staffers, payroll records show, although a majority answer mail and hold administrative jobs. Two women hold top jobs on his campaign staff. Betsy Beamer, Allen's former secretary of the commonwealth, explained, "It's not that he ever went out and said, 'Gosh, there are 10 people on this board, we've got to have this many women.' It was about getting the best one for the job."
Staff researchers Rena Kirsch, Meg Smith and Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.
This is one in an occasional series about the issues in the Virginia Senate campaign.