Women Politicians Sense New Activism US POLITICS

Article excerpt

FOR 900 women's political leaders, politics-as-usual took a dramatic turn Friday night when Anita Hill, making her first public appearance since the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, addressed a national convention of women state legislators.

What had begun as a serious four-day conference on women in politics exploded into an extraordinary display of emotion as Ms. Hill entered the ballroom of the Hotel del Coronado. Normally staid legislators stood on their chairs, chanting "Anita! Anita!"

Their response marked the first of six standing ovations the Oklahoma law professor received during a speech in which she characterized sexual harassment as a form of violence and "economic coercion" that serves to "keep women in their place." Referring to the problem as an "equal-opportunity creature, at least where women are concerned," she called for laws that will be more responsive to women's experiences.

The Forum for Women State Legislators was sponsored by the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University.

The thunderous outpouring struck many participants at the bipartisan conference as evidence of a resurgence in women's political activism growing out of last month's Senate Judiciary Committee hearings.

"There is an under-the-surface venting - a need for action, a need for expression," says Harriett Woods, president of the National Women's Political Caucus. "It burst out with the only available heroine. It was Anita Hill, but it was also the venting of frustration and the hope that current events will make a difference for women."

Not all conferees shared the group's enthusiasm for Hill as a symbol of needed political and social change. "The atmosphere was uncomfortable, and the adoration {of Hill} was uncomfortable," says state Rep. Jean Marie Brough, a Republican from Washington State.

Even before Hill's arrival, sexual harassment had become a central topic of conversation during meals and between workshops on subjects such as fundraising, polling, ethics, and term limitations.

The group also released the findings of a national survey showing that women legislators, regardless of their party, are more likely than men to give top priority to issues relating to women's rights, health care, children, and families.

"Women are reshaping the agenda, and it is happening without high numbers" of women in office, says Ruth Mandel, the center's director.

Fifty-nine percent of the women state legislators surveyed had worked on some type of women's rights bill during their most recent legislative session, compared with 36 percent of their male counterparts. …