You hear about race, class and personality as factors in next Tuesday's mayoral primary. But you hear virtually nothing of gender, except as a side issue.
Oh, a few macho men have been heard to say that a vote for Pat Harris would be a vote against black male leadership. That anyone would seriously consider a vote against a woman they considered a better candidate in favor of a lesser man, is a pretty distasteful notion. Pat Harris says she sees a bit of this "gender comfort" and calls it sad--an instance where men with this view would be taking a backward step, since black women in leadership positions are nothing new.
Still, at a time when black women are more conscious than ever of their history, potential and the need to rectify their double invisibility in the larger society, you'd think they would fall all over themselves to put a strong woman at the city's helm. Yet that has not quite been the case in the race for mayor.
Early polls seemed to indicate that Harris was a favorite among women. Yet Delta Sigma Theta, the national black sorority for which Harris once served as executive director, chose not to endorse anybody -- a direct slap at Harris. In early August, the D.C. Women's Political Caucus -- which is dominated by supporters of Mayor Marion Barry, including many who work for him -- voted overwhelmingly to endorse Barry for a second term. Many women at the endorsement meeting argued vigorously over whether women supporting equality for women should endorse a man over a woman, whether an anti-Harris vote would hinder the chances of women participating in elected politics.
The decision to endorse Barry could be viewed as an indication of political growth and sophistication -- evaluating a situation based on the larger picture rather than on a single issue. They want a good mayor period, and, after all, Barry has had a good record on women's issues.
Undoubtedly, there are other reasons why gender has not been an issue in this campaign. Among them was the fact that there was a second woman in the race, Charlene Drew Jarvis, competing for votes in a town where more than half the population is female. Yet a deeper issue was that Pat Harris is such a special woman with such a complex personality. You could say that Harris killed gender in this campaign. She didn't mean to, and possibly never recognized the corpse.
She is a powerful figure whose accomplishments outrank most men. As a consequence, she also raises many conflicting emotions in the hearts of people. Women seem either to love her or hate her, call her spirited or call her cold.
But I think she is more complex than cold. It is interesting that only in the closing days of the campaign has some of the complexity behind the chilly image begun to emerge.
A few days ago, she had a meeting of kindred souls with women sanitation workers. A week ago, she spoke admiringly of her mother as "an extraordinarily feminine person and yet she can repair an iron, wrap a package and fix an electrical outlet." She said she knew she had it made when her own bedroom recently "smelled like her (mother's) bedroom, which was always nice and perfumy and just very pleasant."
The other day in her campaign headquarters on K Street, in one of the few times in the campaign that I've seen her demeanor even quiver slightly, she told me that she really regretted not having a child, and that she and her husband of 27 years, William Beasley Harris, once seriously considered adoption.
I thought it was remarkable that this high-energy, high-charged woman, with a remarkable resume of two Cabinet posts, would say: "My life would have been totally different had we had children." Such an ordinary admission from such an extraordinary woman. But revealing. It showed that the private person behind the image some women find so chilly is fascinatingly complex, more interesting, than easy-to-read.
So while Pat Harris has made gender a nonissue in this election, it is important to remember one thing. In the end, next Tuesday's election shouldn't be viewed as a referendum on gender, on whether a woman can ever be mayor of this town. At most, it could be seen as a test of one complex woman's campaign to be mayor, no less, perhaps; certainly no more.