Power, Influence and Sex Appeal

"Relying on the deference usually paid to the sex, they thrust themselves in where the most venturesome man would be repulsed; and once obtaining the official ear they plead their cause with a pertinacity that will not be denied." -- Anonymous

When female lobbyists, known as wire-pullers, first started to appear in the White House in 1866 when Andrew Johnson was president, they were often considered more influential than their male peers. There was a "growing inclination to use the gentler sex in manipulating the political wires," according to newspaper accounts cited in "The Story of the White House" by Esther Singleton.

Since then, lobbying is one area in which Washington has lost much of its sexist attitude and brought thousands of respected women to the field.

But, as the case of Vicki Iseman's controversial relationship with Sen. John McCain illustrates, women still need to walk a fine line when it comes to currying favor with male politicians, especially at the state level.

Iseman, a lobbyist for telecommunications companies, was told by McCain advisers, who "were convinced that the relationship had become romantic," to stay away from the senator in 2000, according to yesterday's explosive story in The New York Times. McCain has vehemently denied that their relationship was less than professional.

The accusation against Iseman did not surprise some female lobbyists, who acknowledged that gender dynamics in Washington are complicated and sometimes force them to carefully calibrate their meetings with congressmen and their male staff members.

"There are always comments," says one longtime lobbyist who requested anonymity. "If someone didn't grab your butt once a week, you were like 'What's wrong with me?' When you walk into a room, they say, 'Well our day just brightened up.' In my own judgment, you have to sort of roll with it. If you don't, you're a feminist bitch that no one wants to work with. You don't want to send the wrong signal."

She says that female lobbyists are expected to make themselves attractive. "Attractive but not slutty," she says. "I know plenty of big old fat guys who are successful lobbyists. I don't know any fat successful women lobbyists. Everyone I know who's successful looks the part."

More Power and More Respect

More than one-third of lobbyists in Washington are women, according to research cited by Denise Benoit Scott, the author of "The Best Kept Secret: Women Corporate Lobbyists, Policy & Power in the United States."

The number of corporate lobbyists grew by 100 percent in the 1980s, according to Scott, but men still far outnumber women such as Iseman among "hired guns" who work at lobbying firms.

And she says they are commanding more respect. "In the past, they stood out, and they weren't taken as seriously," Scott says. "I don't think that's so much the case anymore."

Ann Wexler, who is considered the first lobbyist in D.C. to run her own firm, insists that she has not experienced sexism or discrimination in her 27 years on the job.

"The idea that there is this big sexist thing or that you have to do something less professional than men to make it is just a myth," she says. "It's not a gender thing, and I don't think it ever has been."

Walking a Fine Line

Yet women still have to be conscious of appearances during their meetings with male politicians or staff members, Benoit says.

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