Raising money is ''the toughest part'' of a woman's campaign for elective office, according to one Washingtonian who's been in the business for 25 years.
''If you take a look at some of the fund-raisers on Capitol Hill right now, you'll find that women are still doing $100-a-plate affairs . . . while the men are consistently sponsoring $500-a-plate dinners,'' says Esther Coopersmith. Since going to Washington to work for the late Sen. Estes Kefauver in the 1950s, she has organized some of the biggest parties the city has seen for male senators and representatives but has had consistently disappointing turnouts for women candidates. ''Women just don't set their goals as high as men, because they think they can't make it.''
Even when they think they can make it, women have a hard time raising money, as Geraldine Ferraro, a congresswoman from New York's Ninth District, found out. When she left her job as assistant district attorney in Queens County to enter the congressional race in 1978, she told her husband she thought it would cost a maximum of $25,000.
That was before she hired a staff that cost $1,500 a week, rented a storefront office for $1,250 a week, and then tried to borrow money. ''I went from bank to bank to bank,'' she recalls, ''and was told I couldn't get credit without my husband's signature, even though I was a practicing attorney. Borrowing money turned out to be a disaster.''
Representative Ferraro finally got a loan from the First Women's Bank of New York, borrowed substantially from her husband, sold some property, and kept up the dogged round of small-scale fund-raisers. The final tab on her run for office: $250,000.
Today election costs continue to climb nationwide. It's not unusual for state legislative races to run anywhere from $10,000 in Pennsylvania to $250,000 in California. Gubernatorial races can cost between $500,000 in Vermont and $2 million in Iowa. A contested congressional race can cost a minimum of $300,000 in almost any state.
As June primaries draw close, with four well-known women running for the US Senate, at least 88 women entered in congressional races, three serious contenders for gubernatorial offices, and an ever growing field of women in state and local contests, observers are looking at the inequities in women candidates' ability to raise this kind of money.
Without benefit of the ''old-boy network'' of contacts that male candidates have traditionally enjoyed, many women in the 1982 elections are cutting across party lines to support one another, strengthening the resources that are already in place and establishing new alliances, as well. Three national bipartisan organizations are especially active in helping women candidates with funding and technical assistance.
The National Women's Political Caucus, founded in 1971 as the political arm of the women's movement, has more than 60,000 members nationwide, with 45 affiliated state organizations and 300 local chapters. National chairwoman Kathy Wilson sees the caucus as a grass-roots political party that recruits progressive feminist candidates nationwide and connects them with local resource groups. The caucus has launched a ''win with women'' campaign for the 1982 elections which focuses on state races, aiming to increase the percentage of women serving in state legislatures from 12 to 15.
The Women's Campaign Fund, a federal-level political-action committee (PAC) that endorses only women candidates, often acts as a brokering firm, providing women with the introductions they need to local PACs and pollsters. The fund gave $115,000 in direct contributions to women candidates in the 1980 election, and will spend $200,000 in cash this year, in addition to providing another $200 ,000 in technical assistance. Candidates in 25 state races will get help from the fund, with 90 percent of the contributions going to challengers rather than incumbents. Because women are ''not only outspent, but out-professionalized, too ,'' director Ranny Cooper says that the fund has recently been sending professional consultants into campaigns in the early days to assess strengths and help plan strategies.
One of the most popular services of the National Women's Educational Fund, according to director Rosalie Whalen, is a one-day workshop that teaches candidates how to make the pitch for money from prospective donors and then close on it. ''We also urge women to apprentice themselves to local and state fund-raisers, and not to kid themselves about the amount of money it's going to take to run a campaign,'' Ms. Whelan says. ''They need to know that while being thrifty is wonderful, they can't make up with time and extra people and more creativity what they haven't raised in funds.''
As more women bring more business expertise to their campaigns, there are some scattered signs that the new networks are helping:
* Travis County commissioner Ann Richards recently led a field of five contenders to force incumbent Texas state Treasurer Warren G. Harding into a primary runoff for the Democratic nomination in June. She was able to enter the race because her staff was able to collect pledges totaling more than $200,000 in just four hours of telephone calls.
''As a two-term county commissioner, Ann's very smart about running and winning,'' says her campaign director, Jane Hickie. ''She'd looked at a statewide campaign for a long time, and when we were notified the day before the filing deadline that the incumbent was under indictment, we knew the question of whether or not she could make a credible race hung on money. So we got on the phone.''
''It was the first check for $1,000 I'd ever written, except to my mortgage holder,'' says a facetious Liz Carpenter, press secretary for Ladybird Johnson and former assistant secretary of the US Department of Education. ''The trouble with women as contributors is that we've conditioned ourselves to think small. We've got to come out of that. If Ann Richards wins, it will be because she's done a superior job of using the women's network in the state.''
* Evelyn Murphy, former state secretary of environmental affairs in Massachusetts and holder of a PhD in economics from Duke University, recently won the Democratic Party endorsement for lieutenant governor of the Commonwealth. Because Ms. Murphy entered the race a year earlier than most of the other contenders and has been saving money ever since, campaign finance director Linda Noonan says the campaign started 1982 in ''a good cash-flow position'' for the estimated $350,000 race. Strong support is coming from women in the state, and $25-a-plate breakfasts are giving working women who've never been approached for contributions an opportunity to talk with the candidate in small, informal forums.
But the campaign still depends heavily on the big donors. ''There's no substitute for looking people straight in the eye and saying, 'I'd like $1,000,' '' says candidate Murphy.Kathy Wilson, who worked in hotel sales before becoming chairwoman of the National Women's Political Caucus, is another politician who knows the value of ''closing'' on a request for money. ''You can read all the books and go to all the seminars, but if you don't have the nerve to say, 'I need $5,000,' you're never going to raise a cent,'' she notes. As contributors, Mrs. Wilson says, women need to learn that a $10 check ''isn't going to swing it ,'' particularly in a congressional race.
There's some evidence to suggest that many women may be spared the expense of running debilitating primary campaigns in the future. ''It used to be that the party would take a woman only as a throwaway candidate - as a Republican in a Democratic district, as a stand-in on the ballot when no man wanted to run, as a loyal worker they owed for years of licking stamps and stuffing envelopes,'' says Susan Tolchin, associate professor of public administration at George Washington University. ''But now, for the first time in history, political parties are beginning to recruit women candidates. They're looking at women as marketable winners.''