EVER since Jeannette Rankin became the first woman elected to Congress in 1916, women have made only incremental gains on Capitol Hill. Now, after 76 years of snail-paced progress, the election of four new women to the Senate and 47 to the House can be rightly hailed as a historic breakthrough.
In Washington state, Patty Murray, who was once derided by a state legislator as "just a mom in tennis shoes," defeated a five-term Republican congressman to win a Senate seat. In California, the victories of Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein mark the first time any state will have two women senators. And in Illinois, Carol Moseley Braun will become the first black woman to serve in the Senate.
Ms. Braun sees these victories as evidence of "a new day in America." Yet they tell only part of the success story. In a year that was anything but politics-as-usual, more women contributed to women's campaigns, and more people voted for women candidates.
As women, the proverbial outsiders, leave professions such as teaching and nursing to take their place inside the corridors of power, they bring a welcome diversity of experience. Their presence sends a message to other legislators that family-related issues such as health care, elder care, and child care deserve mainstream attention. It also sends a message to other women: You too can consider elective office. In Florida, Carrie Meek, the daughter of sharecroppers and the granddaughter of slaves, won el ection to the US House at an age when most people are retired.
Despite these impressive gains, women still make up only 6 percent of the Senate. In addition, the ballot box is not the only indicator of progress. Elective office represents only one area where women need greater representation. A new report by the US Merit Systems Protections Board reveals that the same "glass ceiling" that keeps women from advancing in corporate America also blocks their careers in the federal government. Women hold nearly half of the white-collar jobs in government, but they account
for only about 1 in 10 senior federal executives and only 1 in 4 federal supervisors.
As long as there is a "gender gap" to be measured in career opportunity, in compensation, in access to power, the Year of the Woman will remain an ideal, to be realized in the future.
How will gender equality eventually manifest itself? Nobody speaks of the Year of the Man because it's always the Year of the Man. When, for the same reason, nobody has to speak of the Year of the Woman, the Year of the Woman will have truly arrived.