When Rep. Pat Schroeder (D) of Colorado first ran for Congress in 1972, 24 women held seats in the United States House of Representatives. Today, there are 29 (including one nonvoting delegate from Washington, D.C.). Have women made progress? ``If someone had told me when I got elected 18 years ago that we'll have 29 today, I would have thought they were nuts,'' says Representative Schroeder from her office in Washington.
Statistics show that the number of women holding all levels of public office - local, state, federal - has quadrupled since 1970. But the percentage of seats occupied by women is still small: 18 percent of state legislatures, 6 percent of the US House of Representatives, and 2 percent of the US Senate.
What's the holdup? History, incumbency, money, and perception are to blame, say political analysts and women in office, for these reasons:
History and tradition. Women, tethered to a past image of hearth and home, are relatively new to politics. ``We're still playing catch-up for a history and related tradition that go back so far and go so deep that we can't possibly get everything within the 20 years that women have been moving toward winning political elections,'' says Ruth Mandel, director of the Center for the American Woman in Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
The glass ceiling - making visible the next step but blocking attainment - is strongest between state and federal levels, says Schroeder.
Incumbency. ``With over 90 percent of the people in office running [in] every election, and 90 percent winning, it leaves a very small window of opportunity for new folks,'' says Sharon Rodine, president of the National Women's Political Caucus, a membership-based network that supports women candidates.
``To get anyone out of office, you have to explain to voters why they shouldn't be in office, and that means negative campaigning,'' says Jane Danowitz, executive director of the Women's Campaign Fund, a political action committee. This is tougher for women than men, she says, because it tarnishes their image of femininity.
Money. In general, women receive smaller contributions from a larger number of donors; men receive larger donations from fewer sources. In Texas, Ann Richards spent more than $12 million to win the governorship; the loser, millionaire Clayton Williams, spent $22 million.
``Women can raise the same amount as men, but they have to work a whole lot harder to do it,'' says Schroeder. Men think in terms of networking and helping each other, she says. ``Women still feel they are not really in the mainstream yet. Our priorities are a little different. I go around and ask groups of women: `How many of you have given as much money to a political candidate as you have for your last outfit?' Not a lot of hands go up. If you're talking about men, they would have.
Debunking the money myth is important, says Barbara Burrell, fellow at the Women's Study Center at the University of Wisconsin in Madison: ``More women will be encouraged to run.''
Perception. Women think, act, and lead differently from men; and voters often hold double standards for women in politics. ``The idea of leadership is not built into our education - school, home, community,'' says Rutgers's Mandel. ``If you say the word `politician,' or the word `leader,' most people see an image of a person in a suit, with short hair - a man.''
Still, being outside the political system may ultimately be helpful to women in the US, where voter turnout is low and voters seem to want change. ``Women are perceived by the voter as more honest, compassionate, in touch with day-to-day life, and caring,'' says Ms. Danowitz. ``They offer a fresh perspective.''
Schroeder is realistic about the election process. ``A lot of women think they're going to be asked to run. But this is not a dance. There are a lot of sharp elbows trying to get to the front of the line.''