Women in politics - still the outsiders

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Some of the most rewarding careers develop in the least expected ways. Just ask Harriett Woods.

As a young mother in University City, Mo., Mrs. Woods asked officials to fix a loose manhole cover in front of her family's house. When they stalled, she grabbed a pen and yellow legal pad and went door-to-door collecting signatures. Her petition worked. The city resolved the problem.

Emboldened by that fledgling activism, Woods became involved in politics. She served on the city council. Later, she was elected to the Missouri state senate and then rose to lieutenant governor. She capped her career as president of the National Women's Political Caucus in Washington.

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All this for a woman trained as a journalist.

Now Woods is reflecting on that long career in a book, "Stepping Up to Power: The Political Journey of American Women." She is also looking ahead, and what she sees troubles her. There aren't enough women like her younger self, entering politics.

"I'm very worried," she says over lunch in Cambridge, Mass. "There's been a plateauing of women running for state legislatures. It's naive to think that you'll have women running for president and vice president if you don't have them running for lower office." Women make up only 22 percent of state legislators, an increase of just 1 percent since 1993. They hold 12 percent of seats in Congress, up from 10 percent in 1993.

Many women, Woods notes, still feel like "strangers in a strange land" in politics, even though women constitute a majority of registered voters. They regard the public-policy arena as "hostile, a man's world, with very few female success stories."

Then there is complacency. Many women, she says, have not experienced discrimination, or don't think they have. They feel they have very good lives. Politics? they ask. Why bother?

Women's reluctance also stems from their multiple responsibilities. Many are heads of households and have demanding careers. They also enjoy more choices than earlier generations. Now that women make up half of law school classes, Woods says, "their eyes are on judgeships or partner in a major law firm, rather than on the school board."

Woods hopes the Million Mom March will inspire new political activism. "I want some of these women to be leaders at local and state levels," she says. "It's too easy to remain lobbyists, asking male leaders to listen to you. It's all too easy to settle for mailing and letter writing. Women have to do the hard work of making the system work for them."

For Woods, the impetus for political action in the 1950s was a lowly manhole cover. For some women today, the galvanizing issue is guns and violence. For others, it might be education, healthcare, or caregiving. Whatever the concern, the prerequisite is the same: caring enough to speak up and act.

When young women ask Woods if politics is as unpleasant as it appears on television and in newspapers, she tells them that although there have been tough times, "overall it's been a joy." She adds, "It can provide tremendous satisfaction when you get a victory. It can take a long time - years. But the people who stay to work it out can triumph."

Count Woods among the victors with staying power. Her persuasive message could help a new generation of women find political careers. By realizing that they can make a difference, they are recognizing that a new century, a new millennium is hardly the time for passivity and indifference.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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