Women's political gains stall


SAN FRANCISCO - America's statehouses are not the male bastion they used to be, but women's progress in winning legislative seats stalled in the early 1990s and has yet to recover.

A major culprit, according to lawmakers and academic researchers, is the legislative term limits adopted in 17 states.

The topic of women's progress in the nation's statehouses was on the minds of women attending the annual National Conference of State Legislatures here last month. In seminars, luncheons and workshops, women asked why they have seen so little progress in winning state legislative seats since the watershed year of 1992.

If anything, political scientists said, the momentum that brought gains for women lawmakers in the 1970s and 1980s is dwindling.

"The pipeline is not any fuller in terms of the number of women," said Cindy Simon-Rosenthal, associate director of the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center at the University of Oklahoma.

One consolation might be that female legislators are continuing to make strides within their institutions.

Women are winning an increasing number of leadership positions that make them powerful figures in their states. In four states, women hold the top spot in the Senate. In four other states, members of the lower chamber seek recognition from "Madame Speaker."

Oklahoma Sen. Angela Monson, who just completed her term as president of the NCSL, said that in many states women are making progress despite being a small minority.

"Although few in numbers, you look at virtually every legislature and women are holding key positions of influence," said Monson, a member of the Democratic leadership in her home state. "More and more presiding officers are recognizing the value of women in leadership positions."

Simon-Rosenthal, who led a panel discussion on the subject, said women now hold 19 percent of the committee chairmanships in U.S. statehouses. In many cases, the panels they lead are the critical committees overseeing budget and tax decisions.

"They don't just chair health committees any more," said Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Mary Panzer - her state's equivalent of Maryland's Senate president.

But for each state that produces a role model for women, there's another where men continue to hoard power. A 2001 study found that in 20 states, women held no top leadership positions whatsoever.

As of last month, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, women held 22.3 percent of the nation's legislative seats - down from a peak of 22.7 percent last year.

As of last month, Washington led the nation with 36.7 percent female representation in its legislature; Colorado and Maryland followed with 33 percent.

(Colorado was ranked second by a statistical sliver. The appointment this month of a woman to an Eastern Shore seat previously held by a man could put Maryland in a tie or narrowly ahead. Colorado ranks at the top in promoting women to leadership posts; Maryland is to the middle of the pack.)

Women in many other states have found the path to statehouse power more difficult.

In South Carolina, only 9.4 percent of state legislators were female. In Alabama, women held 10 percent of seats. In Kentucky, the figure was 10.9 percent. (All three still lag behind Maryland's 1977 percentage of 11.2 percent.)

Simon-Rosenthal said the under-representation of women is most pronounced in the South.

"Politics was not a place for women," she said. "Those traditions die hard."

Monson, like several other legislators at the conference, said the drive in the early 1990s to impose term limits on legislators might be curtailing women's progress.

"In three years, I'm going to be out of there and I'm doing my darnedest to recruit a woman" to run for her Senate seat, Monson said.

Term limits make recruitment harder because of the personal sacrifices potential candidates would have to make for a career that is limited, Monson said. She said that's especially true for women: "No matter how society has advanced, women are still the primary caretakers."

Deborah L. Walsh, director of the Rutgers center on women in politics, said one of the "selling points" for term limits in the early and mid-1990s was that they would provide opportunities for women.

It hasn't worked out that way, she said.

"We're losing quantity and we're also losing the quality of leadership because of term limits," Walsh said.

In Ohio, term limits forced out a female House speaker, she said. In Maine, it was a Senate president.

Walsh also pointed to Michigan, where 52 percent of the women in the legislature were forced out in the election when term limits went into effect. Only through an extensive effort, she said, were Michigan women able to hold the line.

Term limits might also favor men when it comes to moving up the ladder in legislative leadership, Walsh said.

"With terms limits, you really have to come on strong and be pushy for legislative leadership," she said. "The system rewards the aggressive person who's going to step in and just go for it."

Advocates of term limits disagree, contending that they are only now kicking in and haven't been given a chance to prove their value for women and minorities.

"Term limits are blamed by those in power for anything they don't like," said Stacie Rumenap, executive director of U.S. Term Limits, a national organization that promotes term limits for politicians at the local, state and congressional levels.

Because Maryland never adopted term limits, Prince George's County Del. Pauline H. Menes has had an unmatched opportunity to observe the progress of women in U.S. legislatures since the 1960s.

Menes, a Democrat who was first elected in 1966, is the longest-serving female legislator in the United States. As she attended the San Francisco conference, she recalled other conferences from earlier in her legislative career.

Menes said the gatherings were typically 90 percent to 95 percent male. In Maryland and other states, she said, the legislative leadership decided who would attend - and women rarely made the cut.

Menes said the first few times she attended NCSL, she paid her own way.

Even if progress has stalled, Menes still could pause to relish the change: "It is just exhilarating to see so many women."

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