Both parties must do more to increase number of women in state office

Massachusetts politics is anything but a woman's world, or even a land of equal electoral opportunity. There's been some progress in recent years, but the proportion of women holding state and municipal offices is small - and there's nothing to suggest the situation will change appreciably in the months ahead.

However, the Democratic vice-presidential nomination of Geraldine Ferraro may prompt more Bay State voters to think in terms of electing women to various governmental seats. If so, this could provide a bigger boost to Republicans than to Democrats in the upcoming state legislative election, since a higher percentage of the GOP candidates are women.

More than one-fourth of the Republicans running for GOP legislative nomination on the Sept. 18 ballot are women (28 out of 105). By contrast, fewer than one-eighth of the Democratic hopefuls (42 out of 337) are women.

Most of the 28 GOP women are unopposed for their party's nomination and are all but assured of reaching the November ballot. But a number of Democratic women have tougher political rows to hoe in the primary. Several are vying for nomination for the same Senate and House seats, and others are pitted against male incumbents who are firmly entrenched.

It may be that going into the November election, Republicans will have both a bigger proportion and a larger number of women candidates for seats in the Massachusetts Senate and House.

In potential jeopardy, although unlikely to change party hands, is the Senate seat of 16th-term Mary L. Fonseca (D) of Fall River, who is being challenged for renomination by state Rep. Thomas C. Norton (D) of Fall River. The highly respected, sometimes feisty incumbent is the legislature's senior woman member. Mrs. Fonseca, the Senate majority whip for more than a decade, is one of six women senators, all but one of them Democrats.

In the House, 22 of the 160 chairs are occupied by women - 16 Democrats and six Republicans. The latter includes Rep. Iris K. Holland of Longmeadow, the assistant GOP floor leader and a sixth-term legislator.

Although women Democrats outnumber their Republican counterparts in both legislative chambers, a larger percentage of GOP seats (7 of 36) are held by women. By comparison, the 162 Democratic senators and representatives include only 21 women.

It's uncertain whether Massachusetts Republicans can successfully lay claim to being more committed to women's candidacies than are the Democrats. But state GOP leaders have no intention of letting voters this fall forget that over the years their party has placed more women candidates on state ballots. Two years ago, for example, the Republicans nominated Jody DeRoma Dow of Brookline for secretary of state and Mary L. LeClair of Mashpee for state treasurer.

Back in 1970, long before an ''elective gender gap'' was widely discussed within political circles, Mary B. Newman of Cambridge, then an eighth-term Republican state representative, was the GOP choice for secretary of state. Some of these Republican women vying for statewide office might have been more successful if they had not been pitted against a politically rooted incumbent in an overwhelmingly Democratic state.

For their part, Massachusetts Democrats have made much less headway in their male-dominated party. In 1982 Evelyn F. Murphy, now state secretary of economic affairs, narrowly lost the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor to John F. Kerry.

Over the years, a few Democratic women have competed for their party's congressional nomination, but none has won it. By contrast, the late Edith Nourse Rogers, a Republican, represented the commonwealth's Fifth District in the US House for 36 years. More recently, Republican Margaret M. Heckler served the state's former 10th Congressional District for 16 years. She is now US secretary for Health and Human Services.

There have been bigger strides toward equal opportunity for women in state appointive posts. Former Gov. Francis W. Sargent, the commonwealth's last Republican chief executive (1969-74), appointed more women to state judgeships than any head of state. In addition, Mrs. Newman served in his cabinet.

Democratic Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, during his first term from 1975 to '79, had four women in his 10-seat cabinet. Currently he has four women cabinet members, and women hold more top posts in his regime than in any previous state administration.

With women outnumbering men on Massachusetts voter-registration rolls, it may be possible to close the gap between the number of men and the number of women holding office in state government. To do this, women might need to band together and cut across party lines - something neither the male-dominated Republican nor male-dominated Democratic political structure is about to advocate. Currently, the party leaders are using the issue to project their party as the one that is leading the effort to close the gap.

Both political parties could do more to encourage qualified women to run for legislative seats and statewide offices. To help harvest a new crop of elected officials, women and men of both parties might want to make long-overdue electoral changes, including putting a limit on the number of consecutive terms a lawmaker can remain in office. A similar restriction for occupants of statewide offices, from governor to auditor, also may be an idea worth examining.

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