Best hope yet for more women in Congress?

Just when it looked as if the long push to elect more women to Congress might have peaked, female congressional candidates across the country appear in 1980 to be mounting what may collectively be their strongest campaign ever.

While the number of women running for Congress is expected to remain about the same, or even taper off slightly from the last election -- when 47 women were nominees of the two major parties -- the candidates as a group are being touted as more formidable.

For one thing, more of them are experienced officeholders, having honed their political skills as state legislators, secretaries of state, or city councilwomen.

The representation of women in state legislatures -- a major seedbed of congressional candidates -- has grown by 50 percent since 1972.

One of this new statehouse crop, schoolteacher-turned-legislator Lynn Martin, is the Republican nominee to succeed independent presidential hopeful John B. Anderson in a congressional district in northwestern Illinois that never has elected a Democrat to Congress.

Another, more veteran lawmaker, Pennsylvania state Sen. Jeanette Reibman, defeated four male contenders last week for the Democratic nomination to challenge freshman Republican Rep. Donald Ritter in a traditionally Democratic Lehigh Valley steelmaking district.

Still another woman is giving one of the most powerful men in the House of Representatives -- Rep. James Corman (D) of California, chairman of House Democrats' campaign organization and fourth-ranking member of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee -- the fight of his political life back in Los Angeles.

Other women candidates have earned political respect by waging challenges that gave incumbents a scare in 1978. Now, with more savvy and money, they are trying again. Some never stopped running.

Rhode Island Republican Claudine Schneider, a political unknown who nearly upset Democratic Rep. Edward Beard two years ago, is banking on greater voter familiarity and more national party financing to give her an even better shot at the seat this year.

In Northern California, Democrat Norma Bork also has been campaigning nonstop since coming within 3 percentage points of ousting 17-year veteran Republican Rep. Don Clausen in the last election -- despite being outspent by more than 2 to 1.

Another difference in the 1980 batch of female candidates may be a more conservative tinge.

The most visible women lawmakers in Washington have tended to be prominent liberals, such as Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D) of New York and former Reps. Barbara Jordan (D) of Texas and Bella Abzug (D) of New York.

But the leading attention-getters in this campaign often come from the conservative camp.

The woman rallying the strong challenge against Representative Corman, Bobbi Fiedler, is a Los Angeles School Board member and a leader of forces opposing school busing for racial balance.

The opponent of liberal Democratic Rep. Andrew Maguire in a highly publicized close race in the New Jersey suburbs of New York City is Republican Margaret Roukema, who launches right-wing attacks against his support for price controls on oil and a moratorium on licensing new nuclear power plants.

After a 128-year wait for the first woman to take her place on Capitol Hill (suffragette Jeanette Rankin, elected to the House from Montana in 1916), the female delegation grew slowly to 19 in the mid-1970s, out of 535 total members of both houses.

Despite rising national recognition of women's rights, however, the number of women lawmakers in Washington has declined in the past two elections. It now stands at 17.

Unlike the past two elections, when eight women left Congress through retirement or defeat, this year only one of the incumbents is stepping down and none of the rest so far is encountering serious re-election difficulties.

And the lone retiree, Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman (D) of New York, could well wind up in the Senate as successor to Republican Jacob K. Javits, whom she is challenging. At present, only one woman -- Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R) of Kansas -- holds a Senate seat.

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