At first Jennifer Belcher was reluctant to run for the Legislature in Washington State. She had never sought elective office, she lacked money for a campaign, and knew she would need lots of volunteers. Some 400 volunteers, mostly women, joined her campaign, which raised $30,000. And although her opponents far outspent her, she won -- beating two men in the Democratic primary and the male incumbent Republican, finishing with 52 percent of the final vote. She won reelection in 1984 and now says she is considering running for governor in '88.
Ms. Belcher is part of a groundswell of women winning political office which is steadily building across the nation. Their campaigns are becoming more professional and they are cultivating more sources of campaign funds.
The movement is not so apparent nationally because most of the action is occurring at lower levels of office. But these offices are giving women the experience they need for stronger challenges for higher elected office, according to a variety of women active in the Democratic and Republican Parties.
There has been little change in the number of women in Congress in the past several elections. And governorships remain almost an exclusive male bastion. The current exceptions are Martha Layne Collins (D) of Kentucky and Madeleine M. Kunin (D) of Vermont.
The number of women in state legislatures, however, has nearly doubled since 1975; the number of women mayors has more than doubled in the past 10 years; and the number of women elected to county governing boards has also more than doubled in the past decade.
This trend is important, says Kathy Kleeman of the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University. ``It suggests women are moving up and out.''
``The numbers are getting much better in state legislatures,'' she says. ``Those are really good steppingstones for higher office.''
In states such as Indiana, women are also winning more elections as sheriffs and prosecutors, says Lee Ellen Ford, a lawyer active in Republican politics in Auburn, Ind. Women are also winning more appointments to important government posts, she says.
There is ``a budding receptivity for women running,'' says Kathy Wilson, outgoing chairman of the National Women's Political Caucus, which met here during the weekend.
The NWPC is a bipartisan organization supporting women candidates who favor an equal-rights amendment to the US Constitution for allowing abortion, and who support day care.
A woman candidate is ``no longer a novelty,'' Ms. Wilson said in an interview.
But while the numbers are improving for women in state and local offices, their proportions remain quite low when compared with men. For example, the number of women in the legislatures has increased from 610 in 1975 to 1,102 today, according to the NWPC. But women make up only 15 percent of state legislators and only 9 percent of the nation's mayors.
But several factors are working in favor of women candidates, say leaders of the NWPC and other political analysts.
Stereotypes against women candidates appear to be diminishing. Women are still perceived as less able to handle crises, according to a study done for the NWPC by Cooper & Secrest Associates. But the study, which asked voters about five women and five men candidates, found women were favored as being stronger, more willing to fight for their beliefs, and less evasive. (But four of the five women candidates lost the election.)
In addition, campaigns by women are getting to be more professional.
``We've gone from the cookie jar and the shoe box on to the computers,'' says Patricia Poses, a Democratic campaign organizer in Madison, Wis.
``Organization was the thing that made the difference'' in her 1982 campaign, Washington's Ms. Belcher says.
A number of male campaign strategists gave the NWPC delegates campaign advice ranging from seizing ``the high ground'' (Democratic pollster Patrick Caddell) to getting ``the filthiest dirt you can on your opponents'' (Republican strategist Paul Wilson).
One consultant advised against targeting women voters. Mr. Wilson, however, urged women to use ``powder-blue stationery'' for letters to all kinds of women's groups, including garden clubs.
New money sources are opening for women's campaigns.
Women are forming political-action committees (PACs) in many states. ``They're popping up all over the country,'' says Rutgers's Kleeman. Still, a number of NWPC women interviewed here said finances remain a major problem.
Finally, the candidacy of Geraldine Ferraro for vice-president appears to have helped. ``It was a gain; it was a plus for our country,'' she told delegates here. The Cooper & Secrest study backs her up. After the 1984 election, 27 percent of the voters polled said they were more likely to support a woman for public office. Only 7 percent said they were less likely.
Still, women have a long way to go. Since Ann Gholson and Jean LaPierre opened a political consulting firm earlier this year in Alabama, they have won a lot of contracts. But, says Ms. Gholson, they are all from male candidates.