Women Marking Slow, Steady Gains in US Politics on the State and Local Level, Women Are Filling More Powerful Seats and Are Driving Public Debate on Issues like Child Care and Abortion

Article excerpt

TWENTY years ago, when Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and others launched the movement for women's rights, there were two women serving in the United States Senate. Today, after decades of protest and struggle, there are ... two women serving in the United States Senate.

Champions of women's causes might be discouraged except for one thing: good news at the state and local levels.

From Phoenix, Ariz., to Augusta, Maine, women are taking positions of power. There are more women mayors, legislators, and statewide officeholders than ever before. They are increasing public debate about issues like child care, family leave, abortion, and the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the US Supreme Court.

When a woman was elected to the Louisiana Senate in March 1991, it marked a historic moment, observes Sharon Rodine, president of the National Women's Political Caucus. For the first time, women hold seats in every state legislative body.

Yet there is still much to do. Women widely opposed the war with Iraq, but America went to war anyway. Women favor more money for social programs, but the Republican and Democratic men running Washington often cut those programs. Women barely have a voice in the Supreme Court, in the White House, or among the governors.

Although progress at the state level has been slower than Ms. Rodine once hoped, it has been steady. In 1971, less than 5 percent of all state lawmakers were women. Today that has risen to 18 percent.

The Arizona Legislature, where women hold 34.4 percent of the seats, leads the way. But other states are close behind, with women occupying nearly one-third of all legislative seats in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Washington, and Colorado.

The laggards are mostly in the South: Louisiana, 2.1 percent; Kentucky, 5.1 percent; Alabama, 5.7 percent; Arkansas, 6.7 percent; Mississippi, 6.9 percent; Oklahoma, 8.7 percent.

Even with all the state progress, however, the stagnation in Washington leaves some women with mixed feelings.

"I'm discouraged on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and encouraged on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays," says historian Cynthia Harrison, author of "On Account of Sex: the Politics of Women's Issues, 1945-1968."

Dr. Harrison, like other analysts, says that strengthening female power in government could make a difference in the big issues of our time. This year's vote in Congress on the war with Iraq stands out as an example.

Male Democratic members of the House opposed the war, but only by a 2-to-1 margin. …

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