Slowly but steadily, more women are beginning to wield the gavel in leadership positions in state legislatures throughout the country. ``Women are at the forefront,'' says Illinois State Sen. Joyce Holmberg (D). ``With all the cuts in social services at the federal level, the action is going to be in state legislatures.''
Ruth B. Mandel, director of the Center for the American Woman and Politics (CAWP), agrees.
``That's where public policy agendas are being moved today,'' she says. ``Critical decisions are being made at this level, at a time when women are coming in in greater numbers.''
There is a higher proportion of elected women in state legislatures than at any other level in government, says Dr. Mandel of CAWP, which is part of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.
In 1985, women comprised 14.8 percent of all state legislative seats, according to figures gathered by CAWP. New Hampshire has the highest percentage of women, with 33 percent. Mississippi is at the bottom, with 2.3 percent. Blacks constitute 6.7 percent of women in state legislatures, while Hispanic women make up only 1.2 percent.
Women comprise 10.7 percent of the state legislative leadership posts, which include jobs such as house speaker, senate president, and majority and minority floor leaders.
Middle-level posts still serve as a springboard to higher elective offices, but many women are happy to stay in the state legislature.
There is going to be a congressional seat vacant in North Carolina next year, but Helen Rhyne Marvin is not really interested.
She just wants to make sure she is reelected to her seat in the North Carolina Senate, where she has served since 1976.A former political science teacher whose students urged her to ``practice what I teach,'' Senator Marvin sees the state legislature as a place where a lot can be accomplished.
``I think our track record is good,'' says Marvin, who chairs a committee on pensions and retirement, and vice-chairs a committee on child care.
Recently some 80 female state legislative leaders met in Princeton, N.J., at a conference sponsored by CAWP. There was definitely a feeling of solidarity and colleagueship among the women. But conversation at lunches and in hallways centered more on political issues than on the stereotypical question, ``What is it like to be a female legislator?''
Rep. Jennifer Belcher (D) of Washington and Rep. Jane Maroney (R) of Delaware talked about the impact of the Gramm-Rudman deficit-reduction bill during lunch. Rep. Penny Williams (D) of Oklahoma gave the names of resources in education, while Rep. Alyce Clarke (D) of Mississippi, the first black woman elected there, asked other legislators about teen pregnancy legislation.
The women at this meeting have run competitive races and often have to raise a lot of money, points out Mandel. The state legislature is a pool out of which people will emerge to take higher state and federal posts. Speakers at the conference -- Gov. Madeleine Kunin of (D) Vermont, US Rep. Jan Meyers (R) of Kansas, and former Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (D) are good examples. But Mandel agrees that the state legislature is not a bad place to be.
``Constant upward mobility is not the only option to plan your life,'' says Mandel. ``There sometimes is a value to staying where you are.''
And she would like to see more women in leadership positions. Though the numbers overall are improving, the percentage of women at the very top -- senate presidents, house speakers, majority leaders -- is tiny.
The issue of where gender fits into public office is constantly debated. Some women at the conference object to women's caucuses.
``We're asking for equality, and then we go and be exclusive?'' said one legislator in a morning workshop. ``We would be furious if men met in their own group.''
``They don't need to,'' answered another, adding that a bipartisan caucus in her Southern state has enabled legislation on day care and education to get through.
Mandel sighs over the issue.
``Personally I say we are leaders and we are women. They are linked intimately,'' she says, suggesting that it is hard to splinter off a key part of one's identity.
Rep. Sandra Reeves (D) of Missouri says that when she was first elected to office, she did not want to be perceived of as a ``women's candidate.'' But after her experience as a legislator, she began to understand what working women often have to put up with to move up.
``We had to fight to get a restroom for female legislators,'' she remembers. Since then she has become more upfront about women's issues.
There was plenty of discussion over differences in the way male and female legislators approach their jobs. Women see themselves as better at details and homework. They support consensus building, but are also willing take risks for important issues.
``Women will accept risk taking, and get in the forefront in pushing `people' issues,'' says Marvin. ``We demand changes where the traditional male is either unwilling to support it or will instead stick to safer ground.''
One reason for that may be that many men come into politics as a career move. ``Women think about tasks they want to accomplish, rather than future roles,'' says one legislator, though she notes younger women are more inclined to pursue a political career outside the state legislature.
As the percentage of women in state legislatures increases, political issues will naturally be discussed from both points of view.
But most women at the conference agreed that their gender did not make a difference in actual leadership ability. Sometimes they have to push harder. One legislator says she has had to learn to invite herself out to lunch and dinner with male legislators, just to keep up with what is going on behind the scenes.
Sometimes they have had to learn to not take the glory. One woman from the South wanted to pass a major piece of day care legislation. She had not been able to make any inroads after several years of trying, so she handed it to a group of ``young male eager beavers,'' and let them take leadership of the bill. It passed.
But others still exhorted women to strive for power, and not be content to let others be heroes. ``We need to build consensus, but we need to do it from a power position,'' she said.
Representative Clarke points out how proud women are to see other women in office. She says it hit her during the last weeks of her campaign when so many black, elderly women were out knocking on doors for her.
``We do have ideas,'' says Mrs. Clarke, whose husband cooks meals when she is extra busy. ``I'd like to encourage more women to run.'' CHART: Numbers of women state legislators 1969 4.0 1971 4.5 1973 5.6 1975 8.0 1977 9.1 1979 10.3 1981 12.1 1983 13.3 1984 13.4 1985 14.8 Source: Center for the American Woman and Politics