A decade ago, Catherine Hanaway and Ann Wagner sat on a suburban St. Louis porch mapping out a future in politics. Turns out they were good navigators.
Today, Ms. Hanaway is the first woman Speaker of the Missouri House. Ms. Wagner is the first woman to chair the Missouri Republican Party and also cochairs the Republican National Committee.
And the groundbreaking efforts by women in Missouri politics show no signs of letting up. Now running for secretary of state, Hanaway joins an unprecedented six women representing Democrats and Republicans on the statewide ballot this fall.
In some respects, the most striking aspect of this year's bonanza is that it is even a story. After all, 20 years have passed since Democrat Harriett Woods became the first woman elected statewide in Missouri, and 12 years since enough women made it to Washington to have 1992 dubbed the "year of the woman."
Yet despite a number of high-profile wins and candidacies in races for governor, Senate, and Congress, women are still playing catch-up when it comes to elected office and political power. Women make up 51 percent of the population yet only 14 percent of Congress. The number holding office is stagnant or falling: women held 27.6 percent of statewide elective office in 1999 and hold 26 percent now. Their percentage of state legislative seats has barely budged in 10 years.
Analysts point to several reasons. One is term limits, which are forcing politicians to move up or out - with fewer women than men entering politics to replace them. Another is the issues of the day: Close-to-home matters like education, traditional platforms for female politicians, have been overshadowed to some extent by national security since 9/11. Beyond that lie the realities and perceptions of different gender roles for men and women.
"Women tend not to think they're qualified to run even if they have the same qualifications as the men," says Jennifer Lawless, a Brown University researcher on gender differences in politics. Often, too, women aren't recruited by party organizations, she adds, and "there are still traditional roles even in two-income households."
Running a good campaign isn't easy for moms who are pulling a "second shift" at home after a full day on the campaign trail. And launching a career after age 50 doesn't give an empty nester much time to climb the political ladder.
Electability isn't an issue; women win at the same rates as men when they run.
"The year of the woman turned out to be just that - a year," says Marie Wilson, who as president of the White House Project is on a mission to help girls and women of all ages become more engaged in politics. "[The number of women elected to office] is going down in every state. We're not replacing these term-limited positions with women."
Ms. Wilson herself entered politics at the encouragement of a woman on the Des Moines City Council. And she makes a point of asking all the women she meets, even this reporter, if they've considered running for office. "The primary issue is encouragement. You have to encourage women to run. You have to say, 'I'd like you to run and open the door.' "
Already, numerous nonpartisan and partisan organizations are dedicated to reversing that pattern. When women failed to make progress in the state legislatures in 2000, EMILY's List, the organization founded to put more pro-abortion-rights Democratic women in elective office, started a program aimed at training candidates for local offices.
Political director Karen White ticks off the statewide victories of the past few years: 10 women governors (including Puerto Rico) in 2002, along with more women state auditors and treasurers.
"I think we've definitely pushed the numbers up but it's clearly not parity with males," she admits, adding that the annual statistics can appear misleading because women don't have the same opportunities to run every year. Like other organizations, EMILY's List projects 10 years out, looking for possible open seats or vulnerable incumbents. Ms. White keeps a list on her wall of all the Democratic members of Congress by age.
Most of the inroads came during years when domestic issues dominated politics. But the post-9/11 focus on national security coupled with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may be shifting views of women as elected leaders.
Lawless's most recent study, in this month's Political Research Quarterly, shows that women "are disadvantaged when voters are going to be invoking a war and there's no way to get around that." Nearly two-thirds of the 2,119 people surveyed a year after 9/11 said men and women would not handle military affairs equally well; of that group, 95 percent said men deal better with military crises.
That could pose trouble for this year's crop of candidates. In Missouri, for instance, gubernatorial candidate Claire McCaskill (D) is squaring off against incumbent secretary of state Matt Blunt (R), an Annapolis graduate and Navy veteran who served active duty in 2001.
Other women running for statewide offices include Hanaway (R) against Robin Carnahan (D) for secretary of state. Ms. Carnahan is the daughter of US Sen. Jean Carnahan who became Missouri's first female US senator when she took the place of her husband, the former governor and US Sen. Mel Carnahan, when he was elected posthumously in 2000. Other women on the ballot will be Nancy Farmer (D) for US Senate, Bekki Cook (D) for lieutenant governor, and Sarah Steelman (R) and Libertarian Lisa Emerson for state treasurer.
Wilson and others say the number of women running in Missouri takes gender out of the equation. Candidate Hanaway agrees. "Since I'm running against a woman, that's a whole different dynamic. Whether I run a good campaign or not, a woman's going to be secretary of state."
She adds, "I don't think if Claire McCaskill doesn't become governor it means Missouri's not ready for a woman governor. It means they support the same things Matt Blunt supports."