Women in politics: steady progress

For women candidates, the 1980 election brought steady rather than dramatic gains. Generally, incumbents in both the House of Representatives and in state legislatures held their own. Women's political groups had hoped that as many as a dozen new House and Senate candidates who were women would be added to the Capitol Hill contingent. In the end there were only four additions -- Florida Sen.-elect Paula Hawkins, a former public service commissioner, and three representatives.

Not surprisingly in an election which dealt liberal Democrats a stunning blow nationwide, all four winners were Republicans.

"It's less than 5 percent in Congress -- still a token level," concedes Rosalie Whelan, executive director of the National Women's Education fund. But she stresses that the gain for women continues "steady" and points out that organized political efforts on behalf of women candidates as a group are less than a decade old. It was only in 1978, she says, that women winners in state legislative contests accounted for more than 10 percent of the total.

The major gain for women in the 1980 election may have been more long range than immediate. Slowly but surely, women as a group have been amassing more needed financial help and more vocal campaign support from women already in office -- in effect building a women's political network. Most political analysts agree that women were taken more "seriously" as candidates in this election than in the past. "The issue of their being female didn't act as a negative factor," observers Iris Mitgang, chairman of the National Women's Political Caucus.

"The point we've made from the beginning this year is that women candidates as a group had built a career in politics," says the education fund director Whelan. "They know you don't get elected to Congress overnight without a period of time in which you become part of politics as a process on a professional, respected level."

Indeed, three of the new Capitol Hill winners were on their second bid for election to the same office. Rhode Island Republican Claudine Schneider, a former TV talk-show host and strong environmentalist, had more campaign funds and a better-known name on the second try. Former New Jersey school board member Marge Roukemaalso made it on the second try against liberal incumbent Andrew Maguire in an affluent, traditionally Republican district. Florida's Mrs. Hawkins, a consumer advocate, is the only woman twice elected to state office in her state. Republican Lynn Martin, a former schoolteacher and Illinois state senator, won John Anderson's congressional seat.

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