The question concerning women in politics used to be: Can a woman win? The new question is: Can women, when elected, make a difference? The answer is yes, according to nearly 900 female lawmakers, policy analysts, political strategists, and scholars who assembled here for the largest gathering of women elected officials ever held in the United States. The four-day Forum for Women State Legislators, which ended yesterday, was sponsored by the Center for the American Woman and Politics.
``We hear stories every day about women in public office bringing new issues or perspectives to the public agenda,'' says Ruth Mandel, director of the center. ``Especially where children and families are affected by public policies, women are apt to notice and care.''
This sometimes takes the form of legislation for child-support enforcement, parental leave, pay equity, and child care.
In Maine, for instance, where women make up 30 percent of the legislature, the combined efforts of female lawmakers and a women's legislative agenda coalition helped to bring attention this year to date rape, adolescent pregnancy, and job training programs for welfare recipients.
``We also made a start on child care,'' says Rep. Margaret Clark, a Democrat.
Many legislators, Dr. Mandel adds, are also broadening child care discussions to include dependent care for aging parents and spouses. And debates about reproductive choice increasingly include reproductive technology and surrogacy.
But social issues account for only part of women's influence. Workshops on foreign policy, international trade, defense, and energy attest to the diversity of women's roles in shaping economic, military, and environmental bills.
Many conferees exult in the political gains women have made since the group's first national forum convened here four years ago. In 1983, they note, 991 women served as state legislators, for a total of 13 percent. Today, that number is to 1,168, or 16 percent of all state legislators. ``It's incremental progress,'' Mandel admits. ``But it is progress.''
Other advances include an increasing sense of confidence. ``Things that were only an idea four years ago, women are now trying to get through their legislatures,'' says Celinda Lake, of the Women's Campaign Fund in Washington.
Women are also ``a lot more sophisticated about the kind of money it takes, and much more pragmatic about how you go about raising it,'' according to Tish Kelly, a Democratic state representative in North Dakota. ``They're a lot more experienced. They've learned how to play hardball in politics.''
Even so, fund raising remains a formidable challenge. ``We all tend to be a little nervous about money, but we don't need to be,'' says Ellen Malcolm, president of EMILY's (Early Money Is Like Yeast) list, a donor network to fund Democratic women running for Congress. Women must learn how to ask for money, she says, and be willing to spend 50 percent of their time on fund raising.
Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R) of Kansas, notes that it is ``not uncommon'' for a House campaign to cost $1 million and a Senate campaign up to $20 million. Partly for that reason, progress at the federal level remains extremely slow. Only 25 women now serve in Congress.
``We are desperate in Congress for more women,'' says Rep. Barbara Kennelly, (D) of Connecticut.
Beyond financial considerations, many women state legislators are reluctant to leave their current posts, where the legislative process moves more quickly and accomplishments are more visible.
Congresswomen understand the appeal of a local focus. ``Washington has become almost moribund in the process of trying to accomplish anything,'' Senator Kassebaum admits. ``The vitality and ingenuity lies in state government, and women are leading the way.''
Whatever forum participants' individual aspirations, the mood was upbeat yesterday at the Hotel del Coronado as legislators packed their bags and headed home to their districts and constituents.
Many of them would agree with Gov. Madeleine Kunin of Vermont, who sums up the challenges facing female politicians this way: ``There is still something very hostile about politics. It is not behavior women are brought up to do.''
But they also share her optimism. ``It is simply a question of numbers,'' Governor Kunin says. ``It is a matter of getting more women into office - making it more ordinary and less extraordinary.''