NEW YORK -- As the curtain rose on the Democratic National Convention last night, Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, the only Democratic woman in the Senate, introduced the "leaders for the '90s." There were six of them. All candidates for the U.S. Senate. All women.
"In 1992, as Democrats and as women, we are the change," Ms. Mikulski said last night. "We, the Democratic women who are running and winning this year, will change the United States Senate fundamentally and forever."
Never before have women, and specifically women as candidates, figured so prominently at a national political convention, and never before have they been such a mighty force in an election year. Along with last night's prime-time spot, the Democrats will spotlight scores of women running for state and national offices tonight to appeal to female viewers who aren't interested in watching the baseball All-Star Game.
In doing so, the Democrats are seeking to capitalize on what may finally be the oft-prophesied year of the woman.
The numbers alone are unprecedented -- 18 women, 16 of them Democrats, are running for U.S. Senate seats this year (of the total number, seven have already won primary victories) and 153 women, 95 of them Democrats, are seeking House seats (with 58 of them already having nabbed primary wins). But perhaps even more significant is the fact that for the first time, many of the women are in races they have a serious chance of winning.
Some of them have been helped by enduring outrage over the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings of last fall as well as the current season of anti-incumbency where outsiders, such as women, are welcomed to come crash the party.
TC For the first time, female voters are more likely to seek out women to cast their votes for -- and write checks for. And for the first time, said Ruth Mandel, director of the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University, there is "something electric in the air."
"For 20 years I've been watching the movement of women into political life," Ms. Mandel said. "I've seen excitement, interest, hope and organized women's efforts. But I've never seen such a consistent level of anger and excitement and determination among individual women to get other women into office."
"It is a convergence," agreed Jane Danowitz, executive director of the Women's Campaign Fund, which has raised almost $1 million, twice as much as in the previous election year, for women running for office. "The stars are aligned."
To be sure, one of the most fiery of these stars is women's anger and frustration galvanized by the Hill/Thomas hearings, an episode that's had a longer shelf life than many expected. Most enduring has been the picture of 14 middle-aged men grilling Anita Hill about sexual harassment, an image that helped corral surprise victories for Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois and Pennsylvania political novice Lynn Yeakel, who will go head to head in November with Sen. Arlen Specter, one of those 14 men.
"You can draw the line in the sand there," Ms. Danowitz said of those hearings, after which funds started pouring in to women's organizations.
Emily's List, which raises money for Democratic, pro-choice female candidates, has already pulled in $2.2 million for election year 1992 and projects a bottom line of $5 million by the fall -- more than triple its 1990 total. Emily's List President Ellen Malcolm predicts the organization "will come out of this election as the single biggest contributor." Its gala here tonight, she adds, will be the largest fund-raiser ever for female candidates.
Further fueling these candidacies is the recent weakening of Roe vs. Wade by the Supreme Court -- with Justice Clarence Thomas one of the those who voted to overturn the landmark abortion decision and the court one vote short of such a reversal. The court action provided ammunition to women hoping to change the complexion of the U.S. Congress and increase the number of pro-choice members there.
Beyond that, many political strategists note that this year's shift in agenda from foreign to domestic concerns -- such as the economy, health care and family issues -- bodes well for women since, in these areas in particular, they are perceived as skillful problem-solvers.
And where a female candidate's lack of experience inside the system may have at one time put her at a disadvantage, this year, when no seasoned "players" need apply, such inexperience is a plus.
While some caution that 1990, too, was heralded as the year when women would change the face of American politics, there are reasons to believe they will make a far greater dent this year, according to leaders of women's political organizations.
For one thing, recent polls show that while women voted for female candidates in about the same numbers as did men throughout the 1980s, women are voting in greater numbers for women this year, with Republican women more willing than before to cross party lines to vote for Democratic women.