Cambridge, Mass. — Houston Mayor Kathy Whitmire had been working hard to get some positive national publicity for her city when she noticed a respected newspaper had written about it during one of her re-election campaigns. ``I opened the paper up and sure enough there was an article about Houston - complete with before-and-after pictures of [my recently changed] hairstyle. This is what they could finally find to write about Houston.''
Such media focus on appearances may be the most frustrating aspect of being a female candidate for public office. According to Mayor Whitmire, however, fund raising is the most debilitating aspect.
At a forum last week on women candidates' personal perspectives on running for office - sponsored by the Institute of Politics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government - Whitmire agreed with other female officials that women still find raising money much more difficult than men.
According to Charlotte, N.C., Mayor Sue Myrick, ``Money is the biggest deterrent from running for higher office.''
Many say the problem is related to political tradition. Susan Shaer, project director of the institute's new Clearinghouse for Women Candidates, says that campaign contributors historically have been men. So while women have been enthusiastic volunteer workers for female candidates, they generally don't donate the kind of money that men do.
Until very recently, Ms. Shaer says, any individual contribution to a female candidate was usually about half the amount of a donation to a male contender.
Money givers also tend not to donate funds to someone they don't perceive as a winner, no matter how much they may like the candidate, Shaer continues. And many potential backers still don't believe that a female candidate can win a major election.
Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder's withdrawal from the 1988 presidential campaign this fall was due in part to the difficulty she encountered in fund raising. The Colorado Democrat succeeded in raising less than half of the $2 million she claimed was needed to launch her campaign. While Ms. Schroeder had a good deal of additional support, it was in the form of pledges, not cash.
Shaer suggests several ways to tackle the problems that women face with fund raising. She says the growing pool of women who now have their own money but have not yet established a tradition of political donations is a latent resource that female candidates can tap.
Carrie Saxon Perry, newly elected mayor of Hartford, Conn., pointed to donor networks like EMILY (Early Money is Like Yeast) that help to fund female candidates as another money source for women.
Some organizations hope that coaching potential women candidates - for example, teaching them to get their messages across using less costly forms of the media - can help them to bring down their campaign spending.
Another way to ease the financial burden on women candidates, Shaer says, would be changes in election laws to decrease the cost of running a successful campaign. Whitmire said she has spent up to $1 million dollars in a Houston mayoral campaign. Running for Congress can cost candidates several million dollars.
The female officials at the forum did mention a few advantages in being a women candidate.
Whitmire pointed to the common perception that women will clean up government. ``Women are more often outsiders than insiders,'' she noted. ``They usually run as reform candidates.''
Whitmire also said she has been able to use the extra media attention she's been given to her benefit.
And she concurred with Myrick that a male candidate's failure to take a female opponent seriously can be a great boon to her campaign.
Despite the gains female politicians have made in recent years, no level of government in America today has more than 15.6 percent elected women.
``There aren't more women in office because there aren't more women running,'' Whitmire said.
And the officials at the forum agreed that more women can't run without better financial support.
According to Mayor Perry, there is ``still that reservation whether a woman can perform and excel.''