Women off and running

ELECTION season in the United States tends to have something in common with a three-ring circus -- so much to see, and a bewildering simultaneity of events on national, state, and local levels. One of the things to see is becoming so accepted that it almost escapes mention: the progress of women toward full integration into politics.

The two candidates for governor in Nebraska are both women. Madeleine Kunin is running for reelection as governor of Vermont. (Hers is also an immigrant success story: She is a native of Switzerland.) Women are running for seats in the US Senate and House as well. Irene Natividad, head of the National Women's Political Caucus in Washington, said recently that ``things are going very well for women'' running for office.

But the progress at the grass-roots level may be even more significant. A recent study by the National League of Cities shows that more than 15 percent of the country's mayors and city councilors are women. This represents more than a threefold increase in less than a decade: Women held only 4 percent of all elected municipal offices in 1977.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the pioneering West has the highest percentage of women in office -- 21.5 percent -- and the South the lowest -- 12.8 percent. But this is a widespread national trend.

This flowering of women in politics bridges to a large extent whatever gap there might be between ``traditional'' and ``new'' women.

Service in municipal government, particularly in smaller towns and cities, is for many women a natural extension of their more traditional service in neighborhood associations, on school boards, as local precinct workers. And service to their cities is a good way for women to ``pay their dues'' and develop valuable skills and contacts -- and financial backers. This experience will set them in good stead when they seek to make the next move up, perhaps to state legislatures.

The ultimate result of this trend of women in politics is legislatures that better reflect the makeup of the citizenry they represent. And that is what representative democracy is all about.

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