Why Is High Office a U.S. Male Bastion?

Kay Mills is a Times editorial writer

If Cathy Long wins a special election in Louisiana on March 30 to succeed her late husband, Rep. Gillis W. Long (D-La.), she would bring to 25 the number of women in Congress. More women than ever are writing national laws today. But the glass is as empty as it is full; women have little more share in the top political offices than they had a quarter-century ago.

What happened with all those elections heralded as marking the Year of the Woman? Why aren't there more women in high office? And what difference does it make, anyway?

In the face of a movement that has made unprecedented impact on American life, the picture for women holding federal elective office is dismal, at least on the surface. As early as 1961, there were 20 women in Congress. The figure slipped as low as 11 in 1969 and has climbed steadily up to 24 in the last two Congresses. That's only 4.5%of the 535 seats available. And women are more than half the population.

But political activists point out that these women, although few in number, have at least reversed the downward trend of the 1960s. And they are different from their sisters of years past. More of them are elected in their own right now, rather than as widows running to succeed their husbands, as in Long's case. They are better organized to promote their own issues and move into leadership positions. And when they leave, it is usually not because they have been defeated but because they seek higher office, be it the vice presidency, in Geraldine A. Ferraro's case, or the U.S. Senate, in the cases of Elizabeth Holtzman and Bella Abzug, both also from New York.

Still, 24--two in the Senate and 22 in the House--isn't many. Women used to say they couldn't raise money but Republican Carrie Francke outspent her opponent, Rep. Harold L. Volkmer, in an unsuccessful Missouri congressional race last November, and Democrat Frances Farley said she raised all she could spend in seeking a seat from Utah that she lost by only 496 votes.

So women can raise the money, although it's still hard to ask for it. And there's "not a shred of evidence that voters won't send women to Congress," according to Ruth Mandel of the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University. So what else is wrong?

"Incumbency," says Mandel, pointing out that 90% of all incumbents who run win. And the incumbents are mostly men. "Incumbency," says Joan Growe, Minnesota secretary of state who lost last fall in her attempt to unseat GOP Sen. Rudy Boschwitz. "Incumbency," says Joan McLean of the Women's Campaign Fund, who adds a few numbers: Of the women now in the House, 11 won open seats originally; five replaced their husbands;only six, including California Rep. Bobbi Fiedler (R-Northridge), beat incumbents.

But it's more; male candidates have to run against incumbents, too. Carrie Francke insists substantial numbers of women will not be elected to national office until they consider running sooner. "You have to think this is a career, this is your chosen field. Men do." Francke, 30, is following her own advice, having served as the first woman student-body president at the University of Missouri and then working for two popular Missouri Republicans, Sen. John Danforth and Gov. Christopher Bond. Now an assistant state attorney general, Francke left no doubt in any mind attending a recent Washington conference on women in politics that she would run again in 1986.

Farley acknowledges that she may have waited too long--she was over 50 before first running for the Utah Senate, where she served for six years. But she says that for many women at any age, "It's frightening to run for Congress. Women are afraid of many things: of speaking in public, of making mistakes, of not looking like a nice woman. Women want to be loved," said Farley. "It's hard to set yourself up for criticism."

Women like Farley have entered politics more to win for issues--whether anti-war or environment or civil rights--than to win for themselves and achieve power. Going to Washington may therefore mean more of a trip than they want to take. Other women, like an increasing number of men, may simply have decided that Washington isn't a nice place to write laws when you have to raise money and campaign all the time, especially if you're trying to raise a family.

For those women who do want to advance in politics, a network of support organizations has evolved in the last decade-and-a-half to help candidates learn campaign techniques, raise money and master issues. So far, the main progress has been steady growth in the number of women in state legislatures.

In 1969, women were only 4% of America's state legislators; today they are 14.7%. Of those women legislators, 54.1% are Democrats and 45.2% Republicans, with the rest independent or nonpartisan.

The numbers of women in state legislatures have been increasing so steadily each year that observers have been waiting for a corresponding growth in the number of women in Congress. It hasn't come. "We are looking at moving on to Congress as simply the next step. It's not. It's a jump," said Joan McLean. A big jump: A woman in local or state office considering the run for Congress may go from having needed $50,000 to requiring $300,000 to $500,000 for the race to Washington. Her husband may have to change his base of operations. The successful woman candidate may face the expense of maintaining two households, one in Washington, one in her district. Many women will say they aren't going to do it.

If there remains any breakdown in the farm system for bringing along congressional hopefuls, it is in the failure to identify those women who will run early enough. As McLean says, "We shouldn't be hearing of attractive candidates just six months before the election." To combat this problem, the Women's Campaign Fund is starting a candidate recruitment project.

Women won't start winning in any significant numbers until many more of them run in the first place, says Eleanor Smeal, former National Organization for Women president; last year only four women ran for open seats and, overall, only 60 women were congressional candidates. "To make any dent," Smeal insists, "you have to have about 200 run for Congress each election. We have to have women ready to run for all the seats that will open up due to retirements in the next decade."

When women do reach Congress, they emphasize some issues that even the most sympathetic of male legislators may not hold in high priority. Last year, for example, the women lawmakers pushed for and won passage of a revolutionary child-support package and significant pension reforms affecting women. Women members of Congress were also instrumental in ensuring that jobs legislation included training for occupations likely to be filled by women as well as men. And women members are the leaders in continuing attempts to win higher pay for jobs filled predominantly by women.

Beyond specific issues, Farley thinks the underrepresentation of women is a waste of talent and an unfair allocation of power. "Serious problems are being decided by only half the population," she says. "Women are not represented in the halls of power--and we should be."

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