BOSTON — THIS year women candidates across the country are taking advantage of new political opportunities and more are running for public office than ever before, say women's advocacy groups and political observers.
Approximately 120 women candidates have declared or are seriously considering declaring candidacies for the US House of Representatives this year while approximately 15 women are similarly interested in Senate races, according to Jane Danowitz, executive director of the Women's Campaign Fund in Washington.
"It has got to be a record number," Ms. Danowitz says. "The significant part is not only are the numbers extraordinary, but the opportunity these candidates have is extraordinary."
Women candidates will benefit this year by congressional seat openings due to redistricting, the decennial task of redrawing congressional district lines.
In addition, new women candidates will also reap benefits from a growing public mistrust of incumbents as well as a surge in contributions to women political groups in the wake of Senate hearings last fall on Supreme court nominee Clarence Thomas, says Ellen Malcolm, president of EMILY's List, a fund-raising organization that backs Democratic pro-choice women candidates.
Ms. Malcolm says the number of contributors for her organization has doubled since the hearings. "We see from the Thomas Hill hearings a tremendous outpouring of energy and contributions for women candidates because so many people understood how few women are in Congress and are determined to change that," she says.
That was proved true in Illinois last month when Carol Mosely Braun won the Democratic senatorial nomination over Sen. Alan Dixon (D), an incumbent. Ms. Braun's victory was due, in part, to support from women's and liberal democratic groups angered by Senator Dixon's vote to confirm Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Mr. Thomas faced allegations of sexual harassment brought against him by Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill.
Ms. Braun, who is black, won the primary election by capturing 38 percent of the vote compared to Senator Dixon's 35 percent. Braun serves as the recorder of deeds in Cook County, Ill.
"Her victory sheds a new light on some of the senate races," says Ms. Danowitz. "That victory has so turned the tables and changed the traditional benchmarks of how we judge the campaigns."
Three other key Senate races with women candidates which will be closely watched are in New York and California.
In New York, Democrats Geraldine Ferraro and Elizabeth Holzman will be vying for the seat held by Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R).
In California, Dianne Feinstein (D) will be running against incumbent Sen. John Seymour (R) while Rep. Barbara Boxer (D) will be among a list of Democrats fighting for the seat to be vacated by Sen. Alan Cranston (D). "This year is going to be a very big year for women in politics," says Pat Reilly of the National Women's Political Caucus.
Her organization has drawn up a list of likely women Democratic vice-presidential candidates. Among those on the list are former mayor of San Francisco Dianne Feinstein, Gov. Ann Richards of Texas, and Rep. Patricia Schroeder of Colorado.
But some observers say less attention should be given to the idea of a woman vice-president and more on what impact women are having on the candidates' campaigns. They note a lack of women serving in high-level campaign positions compared to men.
This year, although former California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) and Patrick Buchanan (R) both have women campaign managers, few women have served in high-level positions for other candidates over the course of the campaign, say political observers.
"Who are the women who are advising [the presidential candidates]? Not peripherally but in the center core on issues, on strategy, and on raising money?"asks Betsey Wright, a fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "If they're there, they are invisible."