Women Legislators Predict More State Power in '95

ROBIN READ, executive director of the National Order of Women Legislators (NOWL), is on a mission - to arm women in state legislative positions for a slew of hot-button issues.

Now that a Republican-controlled Congress is expected to return some power back to the states, these women need to be especially prepared to deal with an increasing number of debates on issues ranging from health care to technology. They also need more of a support system than their male counterparts do, in part because women are a minority in leadership, Ms. Read says.

That support system was in force this week in Naples, Fla., where about 700 people gathered for the annual conference of NOWL, a nonpartisan coalition of state lawmakers. Attendees included past and present women legislators as well as representatives from business and government. They boned up on topics from crime to the environment.

This is a special year for the 56-year-old organization because it is celebrating 100 years of women in state leadership positions. The first women elected to state office were three women from Colorado in 1894.

Today, 1,576 women hold state posts, compared to about 5,000 men in state legislatures. Women made few gains in the recent election, partly because of the last round of redistricting. Redistricting, which has helped blacks, tends to hurt women candidates, who often end up pitted against one another in a redrawn district, Read says.

Still, more qualified women are running for office than before, and they are a very driven and enthusiastic group, says Bonnie Sue Cooper, president of NOWL. The growth of NOWL's conference illustrates this, she says. In 1991, only 40 people came to the conference; by 1993 more than 500 attended.

Judy Russell, a New Mexico Republican who lost an election by a razor-thin margin this year, came to NOWL to network with other women and to learn about issues affecting her state. ``I intend to run again, and I intend to stay involved,'' says Ms. Russell, who believes women are still pioneers in politics. ``There's still so few of us that we are paving the way,'' she says.

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