AS media spotlights focused on a ''revolution'' under way in Washington last week -- heralding the return of a Republican-controlled Congress and its early efforts to implement the ''Contract With America'' -- a far more modest political shift is taking place unnoticed in state capitols.
This year, a record 86 women will be sworn into important statewide offices, increasing their ranks by 14. Although New Jersey's Christine Todd Whitman is the only woman governor, women will hold 19 lieutenant governorships, up from 11 in 1992. They will serve as attorneys general in nine states, an increase of three. And 13 will serve as state treasurers.
Last year, women also held 20 percent of all state Cabinet-level positions. Although newly elected governors have not yet completed this year's Cabinet selections, the trend here can be expected to continue.
Despite these gains, women's progress in state and national politics remains frustratingly slow. Recent studies find that women are still more reluctant to run for office than men. They also enter politics later.
Still, at a time when the federal government is preparing to shift more responsibility in setting policy and administering programs to the states, where the impact on constituents is greatest, the presence of women, who sometimes bring a nontraditional point of view to traditional issues, may prove particularly beneficial. Efforts to dismantle the last of the Great Society programs and to ''end welfare as we know it'' may, if done carefully, bring about needed reform. Yet if done too hastily and too coldly, they risk throwing more families -- and especially more children -- into poverty.
These are issues where women can have particular credibility, combining compassion with fiscal toughness.
The last Republican president promised a kinder, gentler America -- an ideal the present Republican leadership is hardly stressing. The government may need to get leaner; it does not have to get meaner. If a restraining balance on slash-and-burn efficiency is required -- and it seems to be -- the growing moral authority of women in public life could be crucial in insisting that the real bottom line is not money, but compassion.