The Trickle-Up Effect

ELLEN GOODMAN

October 16, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco. -- From a distance, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein are linked together like a matched pair of Senate candidates. They share top billing as co-stars of the Year-of-the-Woman Pageant.

And, if indeed, both these front-runners do win in November, California will get the first prize. It will be the first state in the union ever represented by two women in the Senate.

This is a probability that surprises even the state's certified political junkies. As Mervin Field, the head of the respected California Field Poll here, says, ''If you were in a room last October with a reasonable number of people -- stalwart Democrats, stalwart Republicans, and observers -- they would have agreed that there's no way in the world California would elect two Bay Area, liberal, Democratic, Jewish women to the Senate.''

These women are not, however, as Ms. Boxer's campaign manager readily notes, ''the Bobbsey twins.'' They are as different in style as they are in height, and they are succeeding for reasons as varied as their opponents.

Ms. Feinstein, measured and moderate, is running against Sen. John Seymour, an incumbent so gray that his name is still unknown to nearly half the voters. Ms. Boxer, an energetic and genuine L-word candidate, is running against Bruce Herschensohn, a former talk-show host so far to the right of the mainstream that he can't even see the shoreline.

The two women have, however, benefited jointly from the great California anti-tide: anti-incumbent, anti-Bush, anti-status quo. They share a lot of domestic concerns. As women they share something else. They are running for office in a state which, Mr. Field says, ''became coed politically before anyplace else.''

That's one thing to remember about this election. If women are at the top of the ticket in California, it's not because they are the sudden, overnight sensation of infatuated voters. It's not because of some passing fad for female candidates. It's not a one-election stand.

Ms. Feinstein, a former San Francisco mayor and candidate for ** governor, and Ms. Boxer, a member of Congress, are part of a longer, slower, much more important and less splashy trend. Not a year of the woman, but an entire generation of women.

Today California not only has two women running for the Senate but 19 women running for 17 of the 52 congressional seats. Most of these women have not come out of the blue or out of the kitchen. They have come up from the huge number of local offices that govern this state of 31 million people.

''The local offices are our farm teams,'' says Kate Karpilov of the California Elected Women's Association. With due apologies for the sports metaphor, she reels off the statistics of change.

Twenty years ago, 3 percent of the county supervisors were female; now it's 28 percent. Fifteen years ago, 10 percent of the city council seats were held by women; now, 27 percent. Today about 41 percent of the school board positions in the state are held by women.

When the political planets converged -- the recession, the end of the Cold War, redistricting -- to make this a time when California voters demanded change, there were large numbers of women ready and eager to make their moves. As Mr. Field says, ''All the energy and talent that was bottled up has been unleashed. The typical woman candidate in California is just out-energizing the typical male candidate.''

The notion, however, that 1992 will be the year of the great leap deserves a cautionary note. Ms. Karpilov for example, prefers to think of it as the year women make, not a baby step, but ''a toddler step.''

If we triple the number of women in the United States Senate, that would bring the women up to a grand total of 6 percent. If women double their numbers in Congress, that would be 13 percent. Even in the California delegation, Ms. Karpilov says, the gains ''will be only minor blips on the radar screen of parity.''

The risk is that 1992 could look like an anomalous, one-time-only special. If so, Ms. Karpilov worries about a backlash in the future. ''I'm concerned that the public will say, 'You had your year.'''

But even with the California ''twins,'' what we are seeing is not an explosion of female candidates. It's a trickle-up effect. That is the real -- if decidedly less glitzy -- story of this year and these women.

8, Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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