CALL it the Anita Hill factor.
Angry at the treatment Ms. Hill received last year during hearings of the Senate Judiciary Committee, women are running for Congress in record numbers. Twice already, they have scored dramatic victories.
The latest example came in Tuesday's primary here in Pennsylvania. Lynn Yeakel, a political novice, came from nowhere to win the Democratic nomination for Senate. In a five-way race, she got nearly half the vote, handily beating the second-place finisher, Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. Mark Singel.
Her victory overshadowed the state's presidential primary, where Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton overwhelmed former California Gov. Jerry Brown 57 percent to 26 percent on the Democratic side. On the Republican side, President Bush won 77 percent of the vote.
Ms. Yeakel's victory, plus the upset scored by Democrat Carol Moseley Braun in the Illinois Senate primary, suggests that women are poised this year to make dramatic gains in the US Congress.
"This is the year of the woman," says G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Millersville University. "I think you're going to find more women sent to public office than in any other year."
The reason for the increase is a combination of long-term and short-term factors. Slow but steady progress
Over the past 15 years or so, women have made steady, albeit slow, progress in local elections.
Every two years, the number of women in state legislatures increases an average of 1 percentage point, says Irwin Gertzog, a political science professor at Allegheny College and author of a history on women in Congress. Currently, women account for about 20 percent of all state legislators.
As women have gained experience at the local level, they have aspired to national office. By Mr. Gertzog's count, 131 women have announced or plan to run for the US House of Representatives. On the Senate side, 20 women are running or plan to. That is the most ever, Gertzog says.
Here in Pennsylvania, a socially conservative state, women scored three wins in Tuesday's primary. For the first time ever, they will be vying in three of the four statewide races in November - US Senate, state treasurer, and state auditor.
Despite these gains, women have been stymied in the US Senate. At no time have more than two women served in that institution at the same time.
Women's frustration with that imbalance boiled over into anger last year when the Senate held confirmation hearings on Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court. In those highly publicized hearings, Judge Thomas was accused of sexual harassment by Hill, a former employee.
In the end, most women sided with Thomas, according to polls. But the spectacle of an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee trying to deal with sexual harassment charges created strong resentment. "It's not about who you believed" in the Thomas hearings, Professor Madonna says. "Regardless of how women sided on that issue, they still believe that women ought to be more in evidence."
Here in Pennsylvania, Yeakel capitalized on the issue. She ignored her primary opponents and, instead, ran television ads showing incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter (R) aggressively questioning Anita Hill. Specter faces challenge
Senator Specter who easily beat right-to-life advocate Stephen Freind, faces a tough challenge in the fall, political observers say.
Yeakel says she finally got into the race because of the Senate committee's treatment of Anita Hill. Ditto for Mrs. Braun in Illinois and state Sen. Patty Murray (D), who says she will run for the Senate in Washington State.
Other women vying for Senate seats this year include: Democrats Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein and US Rep. Barbara Boxer in California, former US Rep. Geraldine Ferraro in New York, longtime GOP activist Charlene Haar in South Dakota, state Sen. Jean Lloyd-Jones (D) in Iowa, and former Charlotte Mayor Sue Myrick (R)in North Carolina.
Women have a second advantage this year, these political observers say. With voters so angry at Washington insiders, most of them can portray themselves as outsiders.
Should the Democratic presidential nominee choose a woman as a running mate?
"It's an opportunity that Clinton might be able to capitalize on," says Robert Friedrich, a professor of government at Franklin and Marshall College. "But he faces the practical problem of who it would be."
Texas Gov. Ann Richards, an obvious choice, doesn't offer the geographical diversity that the Arkansas governor needs, he says.