Women's march to political equality marked by short steps

More women are in office than ever before, but incumbency has kept progress slow.

When they raise their hands to be sworn in this January, newly-elected officeholders around the United States will include more women than ever before. More in Congress, more in statewide offices, more in state legislatures, more in city government.

But this month's elections also show how far women must go before achieving parity in politics. The number of women in the US Senate (nine) and in governors' chairs (three) remains the same. There will be two more women in the House of Representatives, but their total there is just 13 percent. And in Congress, both major political parties still are led almost exclusively by men.

As the title of a recent symposium on women and politics at the President Gerald R. Ford Library in Ann Arbor, Mich., put it: "You've Come a Long Way, Maybe."

"While we celebrate our victories, we are dismayed that progress is so slow," says Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW). "At this rate, women will not achieve equal representation for more than 200 years."

"The thing that's been holding women back is the drag of incumbency," says Janet Clark, professor of political science at the State University of West Georgia. In the recent election, not a single woman won who ran against an incumbent member of the US House or Senate.

Tougher battles lie ahead

In addition to the relatively low numbers of elected women, some observers are troubled by other signs of an uphill battle that may be steepening.

For one thing, the number of women running for state legislatures has continued to drop. This year, there were 2,279 - almost 100 fewer than 1992 (the so-called "year of the woman" in national politics).

"The decreases in women candidates are worrisome because state legislatures are vital for women," says Debbie Walsh, associate director of the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

"Women must be at the table when critical policies are set in the states," she says. "The legislature can also be an important stepping-stone for a candidate seeking higher office."

Five of the six women who were elected to Congress for the first time had first served in their state legislature.

Falling activism

Another worrisome trend for female political aspirants is the declining membership in many national groups that work to increase women's political influence and leadership opportunities. For example, The League of Women Voters has roughly half the membership it did in 1970. The National Women's Political Caucus has seen a similar decline among its grass-roots workers this decade.

NOW's list of financial contributors remains "pretty steady" at about 500,000, says Ms. Ireland. But she says the number of grass-roots activists willing to work on campaigns and get-out-the-vote efforts has dropped by as much as 75,000 in the past few years.

"Every group is experiencing this," says Anita Perez Ferguson, president of the National Women's Political Caucus. "We speak about it very commonly among ourselves."

There are several reasons for the dwindling support, say women activists. One is the lack of a galvanizing issue such as the Equal Rights Amendment or efforts to outlaw abortion.

THE decline in membership also is seen as part of the general unwillingness to work for volunteer organizations in American society. It may be part of the growing cynicism about politics, the attitude among some women - particularly younger ones - that they're already too busy with their careers, or the perception that barriers to women are a thing of the past.

"After 1992, people thought they had won," says Eleanor Smeal, president of Feminist Majority, one group that has seen increased activism, largely through its campus recruiting effort.

"Certainly, there are more lucrative opportunities in the private sector than ... in government," says Liz Pierini, president of the League of Women Voters of Washington State. "[Elective office] is really a very hard life for anybody. Do women really want to make that sacrifice once they've made their point about overcoming barriers?"

Activists are looking ahead to the elections in 2000 and - perhaps more importantly - to 2002. That's the first election year after the reapportionment and redistricting of seats following the 2000 census - typically a time when an unusually large number of politicians retire.

"That will be open-seat heaven," says Ms. Smeal, whose organization soon will begin a "feminization of power" effort, that will focus on recruiting of experienced and viable women candidates for the election.

"We know that women can win tough races, and we know that women officeholders make a difference," says Mary Hawkesworth, director of the Center for the American Woman and Politics.

"Now we need to make sure that more women are well placed to take advantage of opportunities to win," she says.

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