SAN FRANCISCO -- Could Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger have another ''woman problem" on his hands?
Schwarzenegger made headlines in recent months by deriding political opponents as ''girlie men" and ridiculing a group of nurses at a women's conference. Now, an effort to paint the state's teachers as little more than a balky special-interest group has angered many critics, who have begun to question why constituencies dominated by women have been subjected to such tough talk.
''He behaves like an arrogant patriarch with respect to women's occupations," said Rose Ann De Moro, executive director of the California Nurses Association. ''Nurses, teachers, home-health workers -- it's vulgar how he's run roughshod over them. He's arrogant, and he's a bully."
As a candidate, Schwarzenegger was dogged by allegations that he had groped and humiliated women on movie sets. Since then, he has won over skeptics by appointing women to key staff positions and relying on his wife, journalist and Democrat Maria Shriver, as his closest adviser.
But recently, as he has pressed for budget cuts and a broad package of proposals advocating government overhauls, some of his turbocharged rhetoric has opened him to criticism that his views on women are demeaning and macho.
In December, a small group of nurses gathered at a state women's conference to protest Schwarzenegger's decision to side with hospitals and delay changes to the state's nurse-to-patient ratio. Schwarzenegger responded to the protesters by saying, ''The special interests don't like me in Sacramento because I am always kicking their butts."
The nurses union denounced his comment, and the attacks on the governor have only escalated since. ''The arrogance of taking on teachers, nurses, and other professions where women are underpaid, overworked, and vital to society is beyond the pale," said Jamie Court, president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights and a Schwarzenegger critic. ''But Arnold is someone who treats women as objects, so it's natural for him to have a tendency to disregard and devalue professions that are made up of women."
The California Teachers Association and the California Nurses Association recently showed a willingness to take on the governor, staging protests and buying advertisements. Schwarzenegger has denounced teachers, contending that they are blocking improvements to education, and has made merit-based pay for educators a centerpiece of his plan for government overhauls.
Schwarzenegger's supporters dismiss the criticism and accuse unions of using the controversies to generate publicity. ''To say that women voters perceive Arnold Schwarzenegger as a bully because he's taking on a reform agenda belittles women," said Karen Hanretty, a spokeswoman for the California Republican Party.