Concern over domestic issues, combined with greater political opportunities, have put women in a position to capture more congressional seats than ever before, says the head of the National Women's Political Caucus.
But Harriett Woods, head of the bi-partisan group, told Maryland women legislators that the progress won't mean much if the "Year of the Woman" turns out to be only 365 days long.
"If it is only one year, we're not very happy," she said. Rather, Mrs. Woods said, the recent support for female candidates should mark the beginning of a trend toward more female office holders.
"This is a year when we will see exceptional advances," Mrs. Woods told Women Legislators of Maryland at their annual retreat yesterday, held this year at the Guest Quarters Hotel Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
Mrs. Woods expects women will at least double their numbers in the Senate -- from two to four -- and increase their numbers in the House of Representatives by 50 percent, to about 43. But she pointed out that even with such success, the number of women in federal office still will be small. "We're a long way from a critical mass," said Mrs. Woods, a former Missouri lieutenant governor and state senator.
A number of factors have come together to increase women's chances of winning federal office this year, she explained.
Due to redistricting and an unusually large number of retirements, women can vie for more open seats than ever before. Even in cases where women are fighting incumbents, they may be aided by an anti-incumbency mood among the electorate.
Voters also seem to be increasingly willing to vote for women. Not long ago, many voters refused to support a woman candidate, but recent polls now give women a slight edge over their male counterparts. Another factor, Mrs. Woods noted, has been the shift to domestic issues -- education, child care, and health -- where women traditionally have excelled.
She also cited a growing pool of qualified candidates and their willingness to run for office. In contests nationwide, 106 women are running for the House of Representatives and 11 for the Senate.
Finally, she said, women have been galvanized over the abortion rights issue and last year's Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings.
The National Women's Political Caucus has worked to get many of these women elected. It holds training seminars, endorses candidates and contributes to women's campaigns.
At yesterday's meeting, the Women Legislators of Maryland firmed up their own agenda for the coming legislative session. The bi-partisan group, composed of 44 women from the House of Delegates and the state Senate, agreed to focus on abortion rights, women's and children's health care, child care, family law and gender bias in government and the work place.
"Maryland is looked at by other states as a leader to pull together both parties," said Del. Joan Cadden, who organized the retreat.
Besides having one of the oldest organizations for women legislators, Maryland also has elected Barbara Mikulski, one of two women in the U.S. Senate. And the Schaefer administration has received high marks for appointing women to cabinet positions.