Women Throw Their Hats into the Ring

ONE by one, the 95 women assembled on a ballroom stage at the Radisson Hotel step forward to introduce themselves. Behind them hangs a huge, red-lettered banner reading: National Women's Political Caucus. In front of them sit more than 1,000 caucus members, eager to hear summaries of political careers that range from city tax assessor and county court clerk to state senator and lieutenant governor. Some of the speakers are veteran officeholders: a fourth-term state representative in Michigan, a 12-year city council member in New York. Others are newcomers: a first-term representative in South Dakota, the mayor of Lynnwood, Calif.

A few are charting new ground. One explains that she is ``the first black woman elected to the Virginia Senate.'' Another identifies herself as ``the only woman officeholder in the county.''

Whatever their background or experience, these women illustrate the diversity of what caucus leaders call the ``political pipeline.'' They offer encouraging evidence that women are making strides in elected office, particularly at state and local levels.

Yet entering the political pipeline still strikes many women as a daunting, even impossible step - one that will require more money, more energy, more confidence, more ability than they believe they can muster. As a consequence, many content themselves with stuffing envelopes and carrying placards for male candidates rather than running for office themselves.

That may be changing. In the wake of the Supreme Court ruling restricting abortion, women on both sides of the issue are suddenly showing signs of a new political involvement. In the process, some will find themselves examining the obstacles - real and perceived - that keep women from seeking office.

Part of the hesitancy stems from fear of a deeply entrenched ``old-boy network,'' accompanied by uncertainty about their own qualifications. As Carol Whitney, president of Whitney and Associates in Washington, D.C., explains in a caucus workshop, ``Women have a problem. We feel that in order to be equal we have to be better. This overpreparedness strikes women in business as well as in politics. You feel this compulsion to prove you're not an airhead.''

Other obstacles surface closer to home. Elissa Royal, a likely candidate for state representative in Massachusetts this fall, says, ``I thought I would be sabotaged by outsiders, but it was family and friends who initially tried to sabotage me out of love. They said, `Why do you want to subject yourself to this? They'll pry into your personal life. You'll have to think about every word before you speak.' It became very clear they were all terrified the world was going to gobble me up.''

What is far more certain to be gobbled up is money, a commodity often in short supply in women's campaigns. As one solution, Marlene Johnson, lieutenant governor of Minnesota, advises, ``There's a saying in fund raising that nobody gets a check they don't ask for. There are still people and companies that haven't been asked.''

Women must also learn to give money. Admitting that she burst into tears the first time she wrote a check for $1,000 for a political contribution, Kate Rand Lloyd, editor of Working Woman, finds that some women would ``rather have one more pair of Ferragamo shoes'' than give to a campaign. Yet if women are to have money early in a race, Ms. Johnson adds, ``it's got to come from us. Men will give us money later, when we don't need it as much.''

For women, far more often than for men, political careers will begin locally - on the city council or school board - and then advance to state and national levels. Defending this progression, Sharon Rodine, the caucus's new national chair, says, ``To increase the number of women all the way up, it's got to bubble up from the bottom.''

As effective women ``bubble up from the bottom'' in politics, increasing numbers of them will win. But even defeat can produce a victory of sorts. Irene Natividad, outgoing national chair of the caucus, puts it this way: ``Even if women lose, they break the barrier of the perception that women can't run.''

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