It Looks like a Good (Election) Year for Women in Politics 1998 May Not Match Big Gains of 1992, but Strong Showing Is Likely from Statehouses to Hill

Article excerpt

If ever there was a "year of the woman," it was 1992. Boosted partly by the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill sexual-harassment hearings, female candidates swept into political offices across the country - most visibly in the United States Senate.

Since then, the ranks of female officeholders have continued to grow. The number of women senators now stands at nine, an all-time high. The percentage of women in both houses of Congress rose from 6 percent in 1991 to the current 11 percent.

But nearing the end of their first term, three of the four female senators from that Class of 1992 - Sens. Barbara Boxer of California, Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois, and Patty Murray of Washington, all Democrats - appear vulnerable to defeat. The fourth, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, is considering resigning to run for governor. Their cloudy futures raise the question: Will women politicians hold onto the gains made in that banner year? Or was 1992 just a fluke? Many observers see women holding their ground, or better, this election year. Women "actually may {gain}," says Stuart Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report in Washington. "We're seeing some better women candidates, who distinguish themselves not by their chromosomes but by their experience." He says women officeholders have entered the political mainstream and, as a result, share a big advantage with their male counterparts - incumbency. In a year that may well favor incumbents, women officeholders, whether in the Senate or the state legislatures, will reap the benefits. Increasingly, voters judge female candidates independently of gender. "Women will rise and fall on their own merits," says Jack Pitney of Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "In '92 there was a certain novelty value in female candidacies, but people are more used to the idea now." The '92 election was part of a long-term, steady increase in the number of women in Congress. In 1987, for example, the House had 25 women and the Senate had two. The current 105th Congress includes 62 women in the House and nine in the Senate. But focusing on Congress obscures a more significant trend: the even larger increase in female legislators at the state level. In 1969, 301 women served in statehouses from Augusta, Maine, to Honolulu, Hawaii, making up 4 percent of all lawmakers. By last year, the number of women holding legislative seats had grown to 1,568, or 21.3 percent - a 400 percent rise. The increase has bearing in national politics because state legislatures are often the nurturing grounds for future statewide and congressional candidates. …

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