It Looks Like a Good (Election) Year for Women in Politics

1998 may not match big gains of 1992, but strong showing is likely from statehouses to Hill.

If ever there was a "year of the woman," it was 1992. Boosted partly by the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill sexual-harassment hearings, female candidates swept into political offices across the country - most visibly in the United States Senate.

Since then, the ranks of female officeholders have continued to grow. The number of women senators now stands at nine, an all-time high. The percentage of women in both houses of Congress rose from 6 percent in 1991 to the current 11 percent.

But nearing the end of their first term, three of the four female senators from that Class of 1992 - Sens. Barbara Boxer of California, Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois, and Patty Murray of Washington, all Democrats - appear vulnerable to defeat. The fourth, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, is considering resigning to run for governor.

Their cloudy futures raise the question: Will women politicians hold onto the gains made in that banner year? Or was 1992 just a fluke?

Many observers see women holding their ground, or better, this election year. Women "actually may [gain]," says Stuart Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report in Washington. "We're seeing some better women candidates, who distinguish themselves not by their chromosomes but by their experience."

He says women officeholders have entered the political mainstream and, as a result, share a big advantage with their male counterparts - incumbency. In a year that may well favor incumbents, women officeholders, whether in the Senate or the state legislatures, will reap the benefits.

Increasingly, voters judge female candidates independently of gender. "Women will rise and fall on their own merits," says Jack Pitney of Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "In '92 there was a certain novelty value in female candidacies, but people are more used to the idea now."

The '92 election was part of a long-term, steady increase in the number of women in Congress. In 1987, for example, the House had 25 women and the Senate had two. The current 105th Congress includes 62 women in the House and nine in the Senate.

But focusing on Congress obscures a more significant trend: the even larger increase in female legislators at the state level. In 1969, 301 women served in statehouses from Augusta, Maine, to Honolulu, Hawaii, making up 4 percent of all lawmakers. By last year, the number of women holding legislative seats had grown to 1,568, or 21.3 percent - a 400 percent rise.

The increase has bearing in national politics because state legislatures are often the nurturing grounds for future statewide and congressional candidates.

Debbie Walsh, acting director of the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey, expects this year to bring more gains for women at the state level as well. "We're not going to see a 1992," she says. "What we're going to see, as in most years, is slow, steady growth, certainly at the state legislative level."

In addition, the percentage of women holding statewide elective office - such as governor, treasurer, and secretary of state - has risen from 10 percent in 1977 to 22 percent 20 years later. That includes three female governors (one Democrat and two Republicans) and 19 lieutenant governors (eight Democrats and 10 Republicans).

In terms of their party affiliations, a majority of women officeholders at the federal and state levels are Democrats. That's a situation Republicans say they want to correct.

"Republicans have taken a long hard look at the gender gap, and many Republican strategists argue that they have to recruit more women candidates," Mr. Pitney says. "1998 is a wonderful year to be an ambitious Republican woman."

But Ms. Walsh warns that recruiting more women candidates will not by itself attract women voters to the party. "The gender gap is driven by some very specific issues, not the gender of the candidate," she says. "If [Republicans] want to attract women's votes, they're going to have to look at some of those," especially economic issues.

In the Senate races, it is possible that Senators Moseley-Braun and Murray will have female opponents. Illinois state Comptroller Loleta Didrickson, state Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, and Suzanne Elizabeth Plambeck are vying in a GOP primary to run against Moseley-Braun. Rep. Linda Smith and Pierre County executive Doug Southerland both want to run against Murray in Washington State. In California, state Treasurer Matt Fong and businessman Darrell Issa are battling for the GOP nomination to oppose Senator Boxer.

But all three incumbents may benefit from GOP infighting, Mr. Rothenberg says. "The opposition is a bit divided as to their nominees. You'd have to say that Murray and Boxer look in decent shape, and Moseley-Braun doesn't look as bad as she did."

Meanwhile, another woman, Democrat Geraldine Ferraro, is expected to make a run for the Democratic nomination to oppose Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R) of New York. But Ms. Ferraro, a former vice-presidential candidate, faces two high-profile primary opponents. As has happened before, the Democrat who emerges from that bruising primary fight could have little punch left to take on the powerful GOP incumbent.

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