Women in Politics: New-Old Problems For Office-Seekers

WHEN Margaret Thatcher made a five-city tour of the United States last month to promote her memoir, ''The Path to Power,'' a photographer in New York captured the former British prime minister in a familiar scene: getting into a limousine. Yet instead of appearing on Page 1, as it might have when Lady Thatcher resided at 10 Downing Street, this photo was buried inside the Metro section of the New York Times.

The perils of being out of power!

Still, even in this journalistic backwater, the picture was enough to make at least one newspaper reader long for the days when a woman was among the world's top political newsmakers. It served as a reminder of earlier photo ops during Thatcher's 11-1/2 years in office - Britain's longest-standing prime minister this century.

There she was at the G-7 economic summit in Tokyo in 1986, for example, her print dress and ever-present pearls punctuating a lineup of dark suits and striped ties. And there she was again at the 1989 G-7 summit in Paris, a reminder to all the world that women do have a place in global leadership.

Today women are conspicuous by their absence at the highest level of government in major industrialized nations. A few women do serve as heads of state, to be sure. Among them: President Chandrika Bandaranaika Kumaratunga in Sri Lanka, President Mary Robinson in Ireland, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, and President Violetta Chamorro in Nicaragua. But when it comes to presidential politics in the US, power suits rather than power skirts still prevail.

It was 11 years ago this month that 1,200 members of the National Organization for Women converged on Miami Beach with a singular goal: to push for a woman on the presidential ticket. Members threatened a floor fight at the Democratic convention if candidate Walter Mondale failed to select a woman as his running mate.

Mr. Mondale did choose a woman, of course, assuring Geraldine Ferraro a permanent tag line in American political history: ''first woman vice presidential candidate on a major-party ticket.''

The NOW convention became a media frenzy, as any reporter covering the event at the Fontainebleau Hilton can testify. The steamy Florida air was thick with demands and endless chants to ''Run with a woman,'' ''Win with a woman,'' ''Pick a woman.'' Yet however uncomfortable the scene might have been for some onlookers, it raised a question that still needs clearer answers: How do women rise to political power?

Next month, when members of the bipartisan National Women's Political Caucus meet in Nashville for their annual convention, their agenda will quietly focus on what president Harriett Woods describes as ''recharging the push for women in office.'' Women, she says, ''plateaued in '94. For the first time ever we didn't increase the number of women in the state legislatures.''

Yet Ms. Woods, herself a former lieutenant governor of Missouri, refuses to be pessimistic. ''I take heart from the increasing visibility of women as senators, Cabinet members, and governors,'' she says. ''We're closer [to having a woman candidate for president] in having more women senators who are among the most likely candidates.''

To increase women's ranks at all levels of elected office, Woods explains, the caucus will focus on ''a much more aggressive recruitment to get women running, to get the momentum going again.'' Women, she likes to say, can't be 50 percent of elected officials if they're only 14 percent of candidates running.

Margaret Thatcher is not alone in being relegated to back pages. According to the 7th annual study by Women, Men, and Media, front-page references to women declined substantially, from 25 percent in 1994 to 19 percent in 1995.

Statistics never tell the whole story. But until there is some-what comparable attention (and somewhat comparable funds) allotted to women running for office, nobody can pretend that American politics in the '90s is a gender-blind meritocracy.

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