Women Politicians Sense New Activism


FOR 900 women's political leaders, politics-as-usual took a dramatic turn Friday night when Anita Hill, making her first public appearance since the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, addressed a national convention of women state legislators.What had begun as a serious four-day conference on women in politics exploded into an extraordinary display of emotion as Ms. Hill entered the ballroom of the Hotel del Coronado. Normally staid legislators stood on their chairs, chanting "Anita! Anita!" Their response marked the first of six standing ovations the Oklahoma law professor received during a speech in which she characterized sexual harassment as a form of violence and "economic coercion" that serves to "keep women in their place." Referring to the problem as an "equal-opportunity creature, at least where women are concerned," she called for laws that will be more responsive to women's experiences. The Forum for Women State Legislators was sponsored by the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University. The thunderous outpouring struck many participants at the bipartisan conference as evidence of a resurgence in women's political activism growing out of last month's Senate Judiciary Committee hearings. "There is an under-the-surface venting - a need for action, a need for expression," says Harriett Woods, president of the National Women's Political Caucus. "It burst out with the only available heroine. It was Anita Hill, but it was also the venting of frustration and the hope that current events will make a difference for women." Not all conferees shared the group's enthusiasm for Hill as a symbol of needed political and social change. "The atmosphere was uncomfortable, and the adoration [of Hill] was uncomfortable," says state Rep. Jean Marie Brough, a Republican from Washington State. Even before Hill's arrival, sexual harassment had become a central topic of conversation during meals and between workshops on subjects such as fundraising, polling, ethics, and term limitations. The group also released the findings of a national survey showing that women legislators, regardless of their party, are more likely than men to give top priority to issues relating to women's rights, health care, children, and families. "Women are reshaping the agenda, and it is happening without high numbers" of women in office, says Ruth Mandel, the center's director. Fifty-nine percent of the women state legislators surveyed had worked on some type of women's rights bill during their most recent legislative session, compared with 36 percent of their male counterparts. These include measures covering child care, domestic violence, parental leave, rape, pay equity, and divorce benefits. Sixty-seven percent of Democratic women supported such legislation, followed by 47 percent of Republican women. Among male legislators, 40 percent of Democrats and 33 percent of Republicans said they had worked on similar legislation. The number of women serving in state legislatures has more than quadrupled in the past 20 years, increasing from 344 in 1971 to 1,365 in 1991. Even so, women still constitute just 18 percent of state legislators. They hold 6 percent of seats in the House and 2 percent of those in the Senate. Three women serve as governors. Those numbers will increase, strategists say, as women begin to surmount a persistent campaign obstacle: money. Already fund-raisers are seeing evidence of greater economic support for female candidates. The Women's Campaign Fund in Washington, D.C., received $120,000 in donations in October alone in the wake of the Thomas hearings, according to executive director Jane Danowitz. Similarly, Ms. Woods reports that 1,100 new donors have already responded to a full-page ad the National Women's Political Caucus placed in The New York Times last month. "Any woman who's running for office is looking at a very hot market right now," says Ellen Malcolm, president of EMILY's List, a donor network for Democratic women candidates. In 1990, members of the group contributed $1.5 million to 14 candidates. At the same time, another daunting hurdle - incumbency - persists. Ms. Malcolm notes that in 1988, 408 members of the House ran for reelection, and 401 were reelected. As women's political leaders seek to overcome those challenges, new questions arise: Does the energy evident at this convention signal a turning point that can galvanize women in politics in 1992? Or will politics-as-usual return when everyone goes home? Many conference participants, yearning for new leadership, believe the energy can be sustained and channeled. As a beginning, women state legislators from Wisconsin and Kansas, among other states, plan to sponsor bipartisan bills on sexual harassment. Ms. Woods sums up the new mood this way: "You have a sense that everyone knows something has happened, and they don't completely understand it, but they want it to make a difference. There is a unity that has been created."

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