Susan Tolchin, a political scientist who frequently collaborated with her journalist husband on books exploring political patronage, women in politics and the raging discontent of voters — volumes that combined scholarly rigor and an accessible style, died May 18 at her home in Washington. She was 75.
The cause was ovarian cancer, said her husband, Martin Tolchin, a veteran Washington correspondent for the New York Times who later was publisher of the Hill newspaper, which covers Congress and political campaigns, and a founder of the political news website Politico.
Dr. Tolchin retired in 2014 after 16 years as professor of public policy at George Mason University. In an academic career spanning five decades, she had also been founder and director of the Washington Institute for Women in Politics at Mount Vernon College, a now-defunct women’s college, and a professor of public administration at George Washington University.
Along with Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics, the institute at Mount Vernon College that Dr. Tolchin led from 1975 to 1978 was among the first to offer seminars and workshops on the practical and theoretical facets of women contemplating public life as a career.
Among those who attended were future Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) and Democratic Party strategists such as Ann Lewis, who became White House communications director in the Clinton administration. Vermont Gov. Madeleine Kunin (D) also credited the organization’s gatherings with helping her achieve success in politics.
In addition to her prolific public speaking schedule, Dr. Tolchin was a prodigious writer. With her husband, she examined political patronage from the clubhouse level to the executive branch in “To the Victor . . . ” (1971) and a follow-up volume, “Pinstripe Patronage” (2011).
Their 1974 book, “Clout: Womanpower and Politics,” piquantly chronicled efforts by women to break into the political system and explored what they dubbed the “phallocentric bias” in politics, an open and abrasive misogyny bordering on contempt.
They highlighted the example of John V. Lindsay, New York’s mayor in the late 1960s and early 1970s, explaining to a female TV reporter why he did not appoint more women: “Honey, whatever women do, they do best after dark.”
Furthermore, the Tolchins wrote, “Smoke-filled rooms, bourbon-and-branch-water rites and all-night poker games exclude women from the fellowship and cronyism that seal the bonds of power.”
In her review for the Times, journalist and author Lynn Sherr called the book “brimming with revealing interviews and insights” about why some women fail in their bids for office and others succeed — some by adapting to patronage practices, others by playing down their femininity or still others by flashing their stiletto wit.
Confronting a hostile constituent who demanded to know how she could be a success as a woman and a politician simultaneously, then-Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) quipped, “Because I have a uterus and a brain and they both work.”
Several of the Tolchins’ books addressed heated debates at a particular moment in time. “Glass Houses: Congressional Ethics and the Politics of Venom” (2001) was one of the first books to scrutinize the use of ethics charges as a form of partisan political warfare.
Similarly, “Buying Into America: How Foreign Money Is Changing the Face of Our Nation” (1988) and “Selling Our Security: The Erosion of America’s Assets” (1992) were published as the economy went into recession and amid pervasive fears of foreign companies and individuals coming into ownership of iconic American properties or companies. These concerns sometimes played out on the presidential campaign trail.
Reviewers such as author Michael Lewis took issue with the two books, faulting the authors for overstating the potential national security dangers and noting that they understated the roles of U.S. policymakers and consumers in luring foreign investment to American shores. Other experts said the Tolchins confronted important issues, such as the country’s transformation from creditor to a debtor nation.
Lester C. Thurow, dean of MIT’s management school, wrote in his Times review of “Buying Into America” that it was “must reading for every state legislator and governor in the country.”
He said they offered a penetrating window into the “sheer madness” of how the states competitively bid for investment from abroad, undercutting one another by offering foreign companies lower taxes and other incentives at the expense of taxpayers when those companies would probably make those investments without subsidies.
Dr. Tolchin wrote 10 books, eight of them with her husband. Among her solo titles was “The Angry American” (1996), which delved into toxic public attitudes about government’s trustworthiness and how it colored political debate for the worse.
Norman J. Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said Dr. Tolchin “was one of the few in political science who managed to very effectively straddle the worlds of academia and popular communications.”
He called her a “pioneer” in the study of women in politics, one of the few political scientists who saw women office seekers and officeholders as a field worthy of separate academic focus.
Susan Jane Goldsmith was born in Brooklyn on Jan. 14, 1941, and she grew up in Queens. Her father was a lawyer, and her mother taught public elementary school.
She was a 1961 graduate of Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania and received a master’s degree from the University of Chicago in 1962 and a doctorate from New York University in 1968, both in political science.
She was a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and held leadership positions with the American Political Science Association, among other professional groups.
In 1965, she married Martin Tolchin. Besides her husband, of Washington, survivors include a daughter, Karen Tolchin of Naples, Fla.; and a grandson. A son, Charles P. Tolchin, died in 2003 at 34 of complications from cystic fibrosis and a double lung transplant, which he wrote about in a book, “Blow the House Down.”
The Tolchins told Washingtonian magazine in 2011 that there was a tense period of adjustment when they began teaming on books, each sitting with their respective typewriters on opposite ends of a door that had been refashioned into a long, rectangular table.
“When Susan started editing me, she came from academia — she was writing tiny, marginal notes,” Martin Tolchin said. “I come out of a newsroom, so I had a big red pencil and just tore through it. When I looked up, she wasn’t pleased. I realized there was more than a book at stake here. Now when we give back chapters, we always start with a lot of praise: ‘This is really brilliant, but if I can make one tiny suggestion. . . . ’ ”
Added Dr. Tolchin, “We use the old copy editor’s curse: Be nice to me or I’ll run it the way you wrote it.”
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