Winds shifting for women in public office

November 18, 1991|By Gwen Ifill | Gwen Ifill,New York Times

WOMEN IN public office who have been energized by revived discussion about sexual harassment and other women's issues are also at something of a loss on how they can best capitalize on it.

As 900 lawmakers met here over the past several days at a conference for women in state government, they wrestled in a curiously apolitical way about how to keep up with the changing landscape.

Underlying every policy discussion was this political truth: Just as they have reached substantial numbers in office at the state level, many women have discovered it has suddenly become unfashionable to be on the inside.

And the issues they have long championed have suddenly become mainstream issues that they can no longer claim entirely as their own. "The traditional issues we were steered into -- child care, health care and education -- have now become the sexy issues of the decade," said Nancy Kopp, the speaker pro tem of the Maryland House of Delegates from Montgomery County.

It is a new quandary for the women in public office, who have spent decades charting paths toward power and carving out niches on issues their male colleagues had long ignored.

A new study of female officials taken by the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University and released during the conference confirmed much of the anecdotal evidence of this trend. It documented huge gaps between male and female legislators over women's rights, health care and children's issues.

And many women see a new opportunity for their cause of electing women to office. "Anyone who watched the Senate Judiciary Committee knows that that constituted an unpaid advertisement for what we have been saying all along," said Jane Danowitz, executive director of the Women's Campaign Fund.

The fallout from the high-profile hearings on accusations of sexual harassment against a Supreme Court nominee has created "a very hot market" for fund-raising, said Ellen Malcolm, the president of Emily's List, another organization that raises money for women candidates.

"Anita Hill has become a metaphor for something a lot broader than sexual harassment," said Celinda Lake, a poll taker and political consultant. "She has become a symbol for a system that's failed, that's become distorted and out of touch."

But the women are puzzled, too, and uncertain how they will fare when voters seem prepared to oust them from office on the same wave of anger that has buffeted the men on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Some are coming to grips with the down side of the maturity of their movement.

Rep. Marian Walsh, a first-term state legislator from Massachusetts who is a Democrat, crystallized a part of the new, yet old, predicament she faces when she asked Lake and others for advice on the state Senate race she is mounting against two others in her Boston district. One is male; one is female.

"I have never been in a race against another woman," she said. "And I don't want to be involved in a cat fight."

For the women at the conference, the movement to limit the number of terms state and federal lawmakers serve is at once a threat and an opportunity. Open seats have usually presented the best opportunities for women to win elections. But many of the incumbent women who benefited in the past recognize that ZTC the tide may have turned against them.

"It's easy to run against" government, Rep. Jolene Unsoeld, a second-term Democrat from Washington, told the state lawmakers. "But you'll be running to be a part of it," she said. "Try to express your freshness, your uniqueness and your energy as change. But don't bash the institution."

For other women, the fight to hold onto their power has begun even before the next campaign. Many must first face down statehouse colleagues as they watch the most powerful, usually male, members of their state legislatures draw new districts based on the 1990 census that protect themselves and penalize less powerful newcomers, often women.

This fight for political survival spawned a peculiarly self-absorbed conference for the female lawmakers gathering here. Unlike in 1987, the last time this group met, no presidential candidates were invited to appear. And only one, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, established an official presence here by setting up a booth in the little-traveled exhibitors' hall.

Ruth Mandel, the director of the Center for the American Woman and Politics, said presidential candidates were not invited this year because their presence was too distracting four years ago. Other women said the presence of candidates caused previous meetings to break along partisan lines.

Although the overwhelming majority of the lawmakers in attendance were Democrats, many Republicans attended as well.

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