Women serving in elected office

Posted: Tuesday, November 28, 2000

NEW YORK -- Although women made record gains in the nation's highest offices in this year's elections, their numbers slipped in legislatures and other state offices -- raising worries about the training ground for future leaders.

Come January, more women will sit in Congress and in governor's offices than ever before, with first-ever female governors in Delaware and Montana and Hillary Clinton's election as New York's senator.

But in state legislatures and statewide elected offices, women failed to continue the 30-year trend of steady gains, and their numbers actually fell slightly.

Lawmakers and scholars who hope to see women in elected office reflect their numbers in the population are concerned. Besides crafting and managing policy, legislators and officials at state levels prove their mettle for bigger jobs.

''We're not just losing numbers, we're also losing leadership and experience,'' said Deborah Walsh, director of the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University.

The change is slight. There will be 1,658 women state lawmakers in office next year, down 12 from the 1,670 who held office this year. Statewide elected officials, including governor, also dropped slightly -- down to 88 seats, from 92 before the election.

The gains in higher offices are prominent. Clinton and at least two other women won their races for U.S. Senate, bringing the number to a record 12 -- possibly 13, if Maria Cantwell holds her narrow lead in Washington state. In the House, women increased their numbers from 56 to 59, another record. And five women governors -- the most ever -- will serve come 2001.

But on the state level, the stagnation is a break in a decades-long trend. In 1969, 301 women served in legislatures, about 4 percent. That grew to 10 percent by 1979, and to 17 percent by 1989. In 1992 -- the so-called ''year of the woman'' because of a number of high-profile election victories -- the numbers jumped to 21 percent. The new numbers are just over 22 percent, down from 22.5 percent.

Considering that women make up half the nation, ''The numbers are still quite small,'' said Pennsylvania state Sen. Allyson Schwartz, who spent 10 years in the legislature and this year unsuccessfully sought election to the U.S. Senate. ''We have a ways to go.''

Building the ranks depends on women seeking office and serving at local and state levels, Schwartz and others said.

''State legislatures are a pipeline,'' Walsh said. ''If you look at women who are in Congress and governor's offices now, a tremendous number were in state legislatures before.''

New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat who won a third term this month, served in the state Senate. Arizona Gov. Jane Hull, a Republican, was the first female speaker of the state House. The new U.S. senator from Michigan, Democrat Debbie Stabenow, served in the state House and Senate.

''You get the experience and you do a serious job,'' said Hull, who didn't face re-election this year. ''That makes people much more comfortable in voting for you.''

Others followed different routes to office -- Clinton, running as the first lady, had never held office. Neither had Jean Carnahan, who will fill the Senate seat of her husband, former Gov. Mel Carnahan, who was killed in a plane crash in the midst of his campaign.

Some think this year's drop in victories is only a temporary bump, while others see a significant problem, noting that there also were fewer candidates than in recent years.

''The excitement seems to be gone, the movement seems to be gone to some respect,'' said Nancy Brown, a former Kansas legislator who works with female lawmakers at the Women's Network. ''We were somewhat complacent, working with women who were in office rather than trying to find people to get there.''

Schwartz said the political parties don't always promote and encourage female candidates, falling back on traditional networks of men. She said it's important to reach out to other women candidates, providing advice and a role model.

Delaware's Gov.-elect, Democrat Ruth Ann Minner, said women will increase their numbers in elected office as they branch out into the business world, which must come first because they are supporting their families.

''Now they've reached a comfortable level in business and finance they'll be moving towards elected office and giving back to the community,'' Minner said. She began her political career as a statehouse receptionist.

And as befits their widely different experiences and political views, these politicians see different results from women lawmakers and officials.

Women deserve some of the credit for the growing attention paid to education, welfare and other ''quote-unquote 'women's issues,''' Hull said. ''Women, because of their interest in them, have brought these issues to the fore.''

Minner said she doesn't buy any distinction between men and women when it comes to issues -- and bristles at the idea that she was elected because of her gender.

''You know, I don't think it really matters to me that I'm a woman,'' she said. ''I've found out since the election, though, that it does matter to a lot of women. It matters to a lot of young girls.''

Associated Press Writer Christopher Thorne contributed to this report.

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