Women in political office: peaks on state level; plateaus in federal arena
Boston — A woman's place is in the house . . . and in the senate, too. This has been the slogan as well as the sentiment of women's activists as they reach for greater influence in the nation's lawmaking chambers.
Women comprise 51.4 percent of the American population, and they are slowly but surely are coming into their own politically.
Yet despite considerable progress toward making their political presence known, it may be some time before the number of women lawmakers and policy-shapers approaches that of their male counterparts.
While declining to speculate how long it might take to reach parity, observers note that between 1975 and 1981 the number of women elected to offices in the United States increased from 5,765 to 16,552.
Such gains, which have escalated in most areas in the two years since the 1981 tally, are attributed largely to a greater awareness among women to their political under-representation.
Regardless of whether the number of women lawmakers eventually equals the number of men, the current trend can be expected to direct greater attention to women's issues, says Lyn Olsen, program director of the National Women's Education Fund.
''Women are coming to realize that politics is not something beyond them and that they can have a very positive impact on government,'' she observes.
Others, including leaders of the National Organization for Women (NOW), say that frustration over their inability to push the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) through male-dominated state legislatures has spurred much of the current push for more clout.
''We've gone a long way toward changing the image of women politicians; now it is time to change the numbers,'' asserts Kathy Wilson, president of the National Women's Political Caucus (NWPC).
The 1980 presidential election was the first time women voters outnumbered men voters, she notes. Mrs. Wilson says she anticipates that more and more women will run for office at all governmental levels in coming years.
ERA foes, such as conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, say that too much credit is given the women's movement for enlivening interest in politics among members of her sex. ''I've been urging women all my life to participate in politics,'' she asserts.
In the last 10 years or so, women have been particularly successful winning seats in state legislatures and in municipal offices, observes Kathy Kleeman of the Center for the American Woman and Politics. The center's National Information Bank of Women in Public Office shows 1,051 federal or state elective seats now are filled by women.
* Two US senators - Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R) of Kansas and Paula Hawkins (R) of Florida.
* Twenty-one members of the US House of Representatives.
* Thirty-seven statewide administrators, among them four lieutenant governors , 12 secretaries of state, and 10 state treasurers.
* Nine hundred ninety-one state legislators.
The latter, an increase of 83 after the 1982 November election, is 13.3 percent of the 7,438 state lawmaking seats.
Crrently, women hold at least one seat in all but three of the 99 state legislative chambers - the Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas senates.
The state with the largest number of female lawmakers is New Hampshire with 121 - six in the 24-chair Senate and 115 in the 400-member House. Thus, 28.5 percent of all Granite State legislators are female.
Ranking second is Colorado. One-fourth of the 100 lawmaking seats - five in the Senate and 20 in the House - are occupied by women.
Women's ranks also are growing among local elective offices. Seven percent of the nation's mayors and 10.4 percent of all city councilors are female. A decade ago, by contrast, women held only 1 percent of the mayoral seats and 4 percent of the slots on local governing boards.
On local school boards, women held one-fifth of the elective seats in 1975. Today they comprise more than a third of such posts.
Despite these gains on the municipal front, the number of women mayors in the 100 largest cities has shrunk from 10 to six in recent months. Jane Byrne lost to Harold Washington in Chicago, and four other women mayors voluntarily left their posts for other jobs. The mayors of Austin, Texas; Lincoln, Neb.; and Oklahoma City all were succeeded by men.
A major goal of the National Women's Political Caucus is twofold: encouraging more women to run for office at all levels, and getting them elected, says Mrs. Wilson. She says municipal and state legislative seats are particularly good bases from which women can launch political careers.
The districts are relatively small, so the cost of campaigning is less than for governor or Congress, she says. Mrs. Wilson also suggests that raising campaign funds is often a major hurdle for women candidates.
She emphasizes that the women's movement is not a partisan issue and that the NWPC has encouraged women Democrats and Republicans alike to become active in politics at all levels.
Of the 991 women now serving in state legislatures, 585 are Democrats, 399 are Republican, six are nonpartisan, and one is an Independent.
Among the record 23 women members of Congress, Democrats hold a 12-to-11 edge. The Democratic lead could increase by one if Sala G. Burton, widow of former US Rep. Phillip Burton (D), wins his Fifth District seat in the July 21 special election in California.
Currently none of the nation's 50 governors are women, but this could change in November if Kentucky's Democratic Lt. Gov. Martha Layne Collins bests former major-league baseball pitcher Jim Bunning, the Republican nominee. Only five women have ever held governorships, the most recent being the late Ella T. Grasso in Connecticut from 1974 to 1980 and Dixy Lee Ray in Washington state from 1976 to 1980.
Last November, two women - Democrats Roxanne Conlin in Iowa and Madeleine M. Kunin in Vermont - unsuccessfully sought governorships.
Particularly pleasing to women's activists is the increasing number of female appointees to key policy-shaping positions in government, explains Marilyn Nejelski of NWPC.
Several of the governors elected last fall have named more women than ever before to their cabinets and other key administration jobs, she reports. Massachusetts, New Mexico, Ohio, and Wisconsin are among the states that have made notable headway, she says.
''Women started early in going after jobs with newly elected governors,'' she says.
At the federal level, President Reagan during his first two years in office appointed 63 women, or 9 percent of his 670 major posts. By contrast, President Carter in his first two years named 96 women - or 15 percent of all his nominees , according to the NWPC.
Currently, 76 women are serving on major posts in the Reagan administration. The appointments, although fewer than those of his predeccessor, are nearly triple the number named to federal posts by President Nixon between 1969 and 1974.
Women in public office
Congress State legislatures % of total % of total Number members Number members 1969 11 2.3 301 4.0 1971 15 2.8 344 4.5 1973 16 3.0 424 5.6 1975 19 3.6 604 8.0 1977 20 3.7 688 9.1 1979 17 3.1 770 10.3 1981 22 4.1 908 12.1 1983 23 4.3 991 13.3 National Information Bank of Women in Public Office