Women legislators form caucuses to monitor issues, sharpen skills

During the early 1970s in the state of Maryland, delegate Pauline Menes stood on the floor of the House and complained that women legislators received uniformly inferior committee appointments.

So the speaker appointed her as head of the Ladies Restroom Committee.

She took the assignment, because it gave her access to the weekly meeting of committee chairmen. But when she showed up for that group, they told her "you make the men feel uncomfortable," and asked her to leave.

She did, but her frustration and ambition became the forge for what seems to be the first women's legislative caucus in the country -- the Maryland Women's Caucus, started in 1975.

Since then, four more states (Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Oregon) have organized such groups, and one has emerged in Washington, D.C., on the national level.

But Kathy Stanwick, assistant director of the Center for the American Woman and Politics, says that in the majority of the state legislatures "women are meeting and working together at least on an informal basis -- it goes beyond just talking."

Small numbers and greatly diverse points of view often prove stumbling blocks to efforts to form a caucus, but Ms. Stanwick says those now functioning have worked around these problems by applying a number of strategies:

* Steering clear of some issues, like abortion, which polarize the group. All caucuses -- women's and others -- appear to do this to a certain extent.

* Organizing, not to lobby, but to monitor issues that impact on women.

* Meeting with all female legislators to share experiences, but holding additional meetings with a select group dedicated to affecting certain issues. The Oregon caucus does this, Ms. Stanwick says, and the sub-group is composed of feminists.

In addition to women's caucuses formed in the legislature, there are a number of organizations that include elected women from various levels (like the California Association for Elected Women and Research) or for a particular level (like Iowa's Women in Municipal Government).

A third model for organization is found in states like Virginia, where women lobbyists from a loose coalition to which female legislators are invited.

Even in states where no formal organization exists, says Jan Petty of the National Conference of States Legislatures, "there's a lot done on an informal basis. We've seen the development in recent years of an elected women's network that acts as both an information exchange and a place to develop legislative skills. And the network is growing," she assert s.

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