Barbara Vucanovich was the first politician I followed into a restroom to nab an interview. During my years as the R-J’s political reporter, I fumed when male reporters would go in to grab a few words from male politicians.
The first woman in Nevada to be elected to Congress in 1982 was also the first woman powerful enough that it was worth my dignity to stalk her. It was the early ’90s, and when she headed into the ladies’ lounge in the Caesars Palace convention area, I followed.
We sat in the lounge for the interview, confident we were free from being interrupted by the guys. It was a feminist moment, even if she didn’t fit the image of the modern feminist in her no-nonsense suit and scarf.
Her death at 91 on Monday reminded me that while she would never be called a feminist by traditional feminists, she still broke gender barriers in Nevada.
Friday at her funeral in Reno, she will be praised for being Nevada’s first female congresswoman, for being the first woman elected to leadership in the House Republican Caucus and for her frank speaking.
Her friend of 39 years, Tom Lorentzen, choked up when talking about her. He saw her regularly, and even at 91, she was happy to share a bottle of wine with him over dinner at their favorite Italian restaurant in Reno.
She didn’t dwell on the yesterdays; they talked about today’s politics and events.
“She felt confident in herself and was not out to break barriers. She just felt she could do anything a man could do,” said Lorentzen, a GOP activist who met her in 1974 when she was working to elect Paul Laxalt to the U.S. Senate.
Lorentzen, now a health policy consultant in California, compared her to pioneer women who were pivotal in settling the West rather than a feminist, though “she felt confident any woman could do anything.”
He remembered her telling him, “It’s very emancipating to go to Congress in your 60s. You don’t need to prove anything.”
And you know who you are.
Women’s groups said her votes on women’s issues were inconsistent. She opposed abortion but encouraged mammograms. She believed child care should be encouraged through tax credits, not grants. She couldn’t be counted on to take the feminist position.
In her 2005 autobiography, she said she considered herself a feminist “if that means believing in equal treatment under the law and equal pay for equal work.” Yet she voted against equal pay bills she considered onerous.
When Laxalt retired, she seemed like his natural replacement. But Laxalt and Republican National Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf pushed her out of the GOP primary. They recruited Democratic Rep. Jim Santini to turn Republican, thinking he had a better chance of defeating Rep. Harry Reid.
Vucanovich withdrew, and Santini lost to Reid.
One polling document said she had one hurdle if she ran against Reid in 1986: She was a woman. The pollster said that could be overcome “because a woman is expected to be better able to handle issues such as education, Social Security and veterans’ benefits.”
When the Review-Journal’s Laura Myers asked her about endorsing Republican Sharron Angle’s bid in 2012 to become Nevada’s first female U.S. senator, Vucanovich said Angle was rigid and refused to go along with moderate GOP leaders. She also doubted Angle could beat Reid and said she might vote for “None of These Candidates.”
Whether you agreed with her politics, Vucanovich was a woman of distinction.
I will allow Vucanovich the last word, a quote from her autobiography.
“I managed to succeed by being consistent and by not picking unnecessary fights.”
Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. Email her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call her at (702) 383-0275.