More women's places are in the House, Senate

Election could send record number of women to Congress, statehouses. But experts say gains have slowed.

On a chill, blustery morning in Wilmington's well-tended Brandywine Park, gubernatorial hopeful Lt. Gov. Ruth Ann Minner stands among a gaggle of yellow T-shirted kindergartners, picks up trash, and trumpets the merits of volunteerism.

It's the kickoff for Delaware Make a Difference Day. With the gently rolling Brandywine River in the background and a handful of television cameras rolling in the fore, it's a perfect political moment. And, because the tough, down-to-earth grandmother of seven is exercising her official duties, the press that comes with it is free - the best kind at the height of a political campaign.

With a record number of women serving in the US Congress and in statewide offices around the US, more women like Ms. Minner are able to exercise the prerogatives that come with incumbency - once primarily the domain of men - vastly increasing their political capital and electability.

With a sturdy lead in the polls, Minner is both a symbol of that success and also of how far women still need to go. She is one of five women running for governor this year. All but one currently hold statewide offices and are in competitive races. As a result, come Nov. 7, women could head a record number of states. That sounds impressive - until you realize that a record would be four women governors.

For all the focus this year on women's issues and women swing voters, the number of women who are actually running for office is, at best, holding steady after dramatically increasing between 1970 and 1992.

"We're hanging in there," says Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "It's for all the reasons that make it difficult for newcomers in the political process, and make no mistake, decades after we got the vote, we are still newcomers."

The reasons range from the difficulty of getting nominations to high rates of incumbency to a campaign-finance system that requires most candidates to have lots of money before they start campaigning.

Another problem is time. In this high-speed culture, where women often work as well as care for families, running for office - in addition to the grocery store and to a daughter's soccer game - just may not be in the realm of possibility.

Add to that another frustrating cultural twist. "There has been a change in attitude; now both boys and girls are told they can grow up to be president," says Ms. Mandel. "At the same time, there's a countermessage, saying, 'Why would anyone want to be a part of that anyway?' "

For Minner, participating was a question of survival, at least initially. She dropped out of school at 16 to help with the family farm and got married the following year. Fifteen years later, she found herself a widow with three children to raise and no means of support. It was the 1960s, and she was told she couldn't get a credit card or a loan without a man's signature. Minner took over her husband's asphalt paving business, kept their family farm running, went back to school, and decided someone had to change the laws that restricted what she could do simply because she was a woman.

"From the time I was a child, my mother taught me you should help someone else if they had a problem," she says. "I realized that someone had to take the initiative to make it easier for other women."

Minner began lobbying the male-dominated assembly, and when she got very little response, decided to run herself. In 1974, she became the first woman elected to the state's House from her district. She spent four terms in the House and three in the state Senate before being elected Delaware's first woman lieutenant governor in 1992.

That history of public service has established her firmly as an effective consensus builder. She's viewed as a candidate, not a woman candidate, although her feminine style is clearly appreciated. "She tries to find a win-win solution, but I don't think she shies away from conflict either," says supporter John Baker of Wilmington.

For Minner, the combination of her upbringing and personal experience propelled her into public office. She was a rarity 30 years ago, when 4 percent of all state legislators were woman. Today, 22.5 percent of the nation's more than 7,000 state lawmakers are women. That's a big improvement, experts say, but still far from the majority they represent in the population.

"A big barrier to holding office at the higher levels is experience serving at the lower levels," says Mary Thornberry, a political scientist at Davidson College in North Carolina. Often, state legislatures are low-paying, part-time jobs that require regular travel to the capital, which could be far from a woman's home and children.

That is one of the many structural impediments that Eleanor Smeal of the Feminist Majority Foundation says needs to be overcome. "The rules of the game are essentially rigged and still controlled by male-dominated business interests, that's the challenge," she says.

Ms. Smeal would like to see not only campaign-finance reform to level the playing field but also what she calls "campaign reform." That would include a loan program so candidates could pay the mortgage while running. "Given the current rules, it takes $30 million or $40 million to run for Senate," she says. "Who can afford that?"

Despite such barriers, many women see real progress. Ellen Malcom, head of Emily's List, says this is the first election where women are the strongest competitors in critical races. "This election is phenomenal, there are 10 women who could determine who controls the House," she says. "They're no longer seen as second-tier candidates, but as first-round contenders."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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