THE Year of the Woman in American politics was launched last October as an all-male panel of senators sat in judgment of a messy and emotional battle between Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas and Prof. Anita Hill over sexual harassment charges.
The fury of those who sympathized with Professor Hill was a major factor leading to the record number of female candidacies around the country.
But, say political observers, while more women than ever may find themselves in elected office after Nov. 3, it will not be on the strength women's rights as a single, driving issue. Analysts say the "gender" issues - including abortion, sexual harassment, and women's rights - will be bundled in with broader concerns such as the economy, the environment, and health care.
"The electorate has reached a new level of maturity," says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe of the Claremont, Calif., Graduate School, and voters are looking at candidates as candidates. Gender is no more a plus than a minus."
A classic case is that of Lynn Yeakel, a political novice from Pennsylvania who rose from last October's outraged television audience to build a primary campaign on ads featuring Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania interrogating Anita Hill with prosecutorial zeal.
"Did this make you as angry as it made me?" she asked viewers in her television advertising.
Raising close to $1 million in just six months, Ms. Yeakel edged out a favored male opponent to win Democratic nomination for US senator in April's Pennsylvania Democratic primary. She campaigned on the single issue of gender, becoming what experts say is two-term incumbent Specter's most formidable challenger yet.
But a closer look at this and other political races stemming from the Thomas hearings indicates that gender alone will not be as large a factor in the general elections as it was in the primaries. Political observers say that Yeakel, who polls indicate is running even with Specter, could lose momentum if she does not broaden her campaign to tackle the issues of unemployment and the state of economy, two crucial issues in Pennsylvania.
"She has got to appeal to a much broader coalition of voters," says Irwin Gertzog, a professor of political science at Allegheny College. "If she concentrates exclusively on women's issues, she will not appeal to that broader coalition."
Yeakel has to reach more of Pennsylvania's large base of blue-collar workers, says G. Terry Madonna, a professor of political science at Millersville, Pa., University. "She is walking a tightrope," he says. "She has got to be careful not to cross the line and exclude people."
Another Senate candidacy born of the Thomas hearings - that of Carol Moseley Braun in Illinois - has already switched gears since the primary. Democrat Braun, who will become the nation's first black female senator if she wins, is centering her campaign around issues like health care and the economy. So far, her Republican opponent, Richard Williamson, has avoided gender and race issues - instead, aiming his attacks at Ms. Braun's "tax and spend" policies.
The contest is quite different from the Illinois primary race, in which Braun's two male opponents channeled their energies into attacking each other, says Gerald Rosenberg, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago.
The anger and frustration of women, dramatized in the Thomas hearing last fall, is still part of the political atmosphere. Former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein (D) and US Rep. Barbara Boxer (D) of California continue to address the issue aggressively in their campaigns for California's two Senate seats. But analysts point out that both have put forth strong platforms on economics and other issues.
"I don't think [women candidates] need to downplay women's issues," says Leslie Wolfe, director of the Center for Women's Policy Studies in Washington. She adds: "I think they also need to emphasize their expertise on other issues."
One issue in which gender still plays a key role, however, is abortion. In Illinois, for instance, the Republican opponent of pro-choice Carol Moseley Braun thought it politically wise to switch his anti-abortion position following her primary win. The move led to turmoil among Illinois conservatives, some of whom considered bringing a third candidate into the race.
In California, Ms. Feinstein's Republican opponent for the Senate, John Seymour, reversed his abortion stance to pro-choice several years ago. But analysts say the switch probably won't give him much of a political boost.
"If it comes down to the single issue of abortion, voters will favor women [candidates] because they see women as being more consistent and sensitive about it," says Mervin Field, director of the Field Institute, a public policy research organization in San Francisco.