Women state legislators compare gains at nationwide caucus

As Martha M. Ezzard, Republican caucus chairwoman in the Colorado Senate, tells it, she was pulled over in her Volkswagen for speeding in the conservative Denver suburb where she lives.

The patrolman took a long look at the Colorado Senate license plates on her car and said, ''Well, ma'am, out of deference to your husband, I'm going to let this go.''

The fact that the officer assumed Senator Ezzard's husband was the senator in the family may be an indication of how far women still have to go in politics.

But there has been measurable progress during the last 10 years. And some not so measurable, such as the gradual decline in encounters like Senator Ezzard's.

This past weekend, what was billed as the largest gathering ever of woman politicians met here. More than a third of the 993 women elected to state legislatures in the country came for a forum held by the Center for the American Woman and Politics (CAWP), an arm of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.

The most basic measure of progress was in sheer numbers. The corps of women in state legislatures has more than tripled since 1969, from 4 percent of the total to 13.4 percent this year.

While there have always been women in politics, now women represent a full-fledged influx, according to Ruth Mandel, director of the CAWP and author of the 1981 book, ''In the Running: the New Woman Candidate.''

The women who gathered here, she says, are pioneers. ''They're outsiders who represent the first group, the first wave in this country of women in political office.''

These woman, overall, are a different group than the women in office a decade ago, says Dr. Mandel. Now, she says, ''it's a much more diverse crowd.''

Ten years ago, woman politicians were much older than their male counterparts , according to Dr. Mandel. Many had entered politics only after raising families and generally they sought office as the ''crowning reward'' for long years of volunteer service to political causes and campaigns. Now there is a greater mix of ages and backgrounds among women in office, and more of them are political professionals with ambitions.

Political life is still different in all kinds of ways, many here feel, for a woman than for a man.

Some talk of how much harder they have to work to get information in legislatures run by ''good ol' boys.'' Or being consistently confused with another woman legislator with whom one bears no resemblance at all. Or getting frequent calls to speak outside their districts because they represent an underrepresented group.

Both voters and fellow legislators often assume women to have certain interests. Rep. Lona A. Minne, a Minnesota Democrat, requested three committees as a freshman legislator, the usual number, and inevitably she got a fourth: the health and welfare committee.

She got herself reassigned from that committee, one that her fellows assumed was a natural choice for a woman, but her colleague Linda Scheid (D) is still trying to get off the committee.

On the campaign trail, there is still bald-faced prejudice. Vermont state Sen. Sarah T. Soule (D) is sometimes taken aback while campaigning door-to-door when she is told, ''I always vote for the man.'' Voters are at least not so frank about their other prejudices, she adds. ''I never hear anyone say, 'I always vote for the white.' ''

Other women here report the same thing. An even more common response to a campaign call is to have a woman assert, ''I don't know if I can support you or not until I ask my husband.''

This is getting more rare in recent years, and some campaigners have heard a sort of reverse prejudice - voters announcing their unqualified support for a woman candidate just because she is a woman.

What kind of difference do women make on policy?

It's still too early to tell, says Dr. Mandel. ''We won't know what difference it makes until we get more women in office.''

Most woman legislators are Democrats by a 3-to-2 margin. But then there is an even higher Democratic margin among men legislators.

The concern women talked of here - Republican and Democrat alike - was fairness, especially economic fairness. Many Republican legislators liked their party's tradition of fiscal responsibility, but criticized the GOP stance against the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion rights. One group of GOP women demanded President Reagan come out more strongly for women's rights.

Constance A. Morella (R) of the Maryland House is not atypical of the Republican women who gathered here. A community college teacher, she brought up nine children, three of her own and six of her late sister. She became an activist on issues of equity for women in the early 1970s. After testifying before politicians at various levels, she decided she could do the job herself.

A Republican in a very Democratic district, she encounters a strong ''gender gap,'' a measurable difference between the political views of men and women. ''I'm a woman first, and a party member second,'' she says.

''I can be very conservative on pocketbook issues,'' she adds, ''and liberal on human issues.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.