As More Women Run, Gains in Congress Predicted
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 1, 1998; Page A16
LOS ANGELES Just like her father had done so many times over four decades, Democrat Janice Hahn hauled herself before a roomful of friends and strangers to plead for votes and support on an evening she could have spent with her family.
On this recent weekday night in Torrance, Calif., things went well: Mayor Dee Hardison gave her a glowing recommendation in her campaign for Congress, and the crowd seemed responsive to her speech.
No one mentioned, nor did it seem to matter to any of the 60 or so people in the room, that in a political realm once dominated by men like her father longtime Los Angeles County supervisor Kenneth Hahn Janice Hahn is a woman. In fact, she is running to replace a woman, Rep. Jane Harman (D), who won her seat in 1992, the so-called Year of the Woman.
Just a decade ago, there were 25 women in Congress. Today there are 63, and the trend shows little sign of slowing. Women have won half of the eight special elections held to fill vacant seats in this term of Congress, and nearly half of the most competitive races in the country this year feature female candidates.
California, where 13 of the 52 House members and both senators are women, is considered one of the most receptive to female candidates, particularly Democrats.
With the exception of 1992, when the combined number of women in the House and Senate jumped from 32 to 54 when the backlash over Senate confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas propelled scores of women into politics the increase has been slow but steady for two decades. Women now make up 12 percent of the House and 9 percent of the Senate.
The political trend has mirrored corporate America, where women began moving into middle management in significant numbers during the 1970s. In politics, women began establishing their base in state legislatures and many of those women have been moving on to the national level.
"What's happened is that there has been a quarter of a century of incremental process," said Ruth Mandel, director of Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics, which runs the Center for the American Woman and Politics. "In fact, that incremental progress represents enormous changes in terms of participatory democracy."
Politically, women have come a long way since 1916, when Jeannette Rankin (R-Mont.) became the first woman elected to the House. This year, women have won 130 party primaries for House and Senate seats, although many are challengers with little chance of unseating incumbents. By comparison, 61 women had won party primaries entering the November 1988 election.
Mandel and others argue that the progress, while incremental, has demonstrated to other women that high political offices are accessible. It "sends a powerful message to young boys and girls about who our decision-makers are, that they are women also," Mandel said.
During an interview at her Torrance town house, Hahn said her gender has made little difference on the campaign trail. But, she said, in some places women might have a slight advantage among voters who are looking for something different. Hahn, a moderate, abortion-rights, pro-business Democrat, said many voters identify with her experiences as a divorced single mother of three.
"What it means for me is, I know what it's like to hold a job down, to get your kids to soccer practice or try to get to the PTA meeting on the same night you're trying to do your taxes," said Hahn, who is in a close race with Republican Steve Kuykendall, a longtime state representative. "People understand that."
Among her many concerns when she was deciding whether to run, said Hahn who has never held elected office was what would happen to her two children if she won. Taking advantage of the changed political landscape, she consulted with no less than half the women in the state's congressional delegation about this and other questions. The children, she decided, would remain with their father in California if she goes to Washington.
"I didn't have a lot of [female political] role models growing up," Hahn said. "We've come a long way, and I really think it's a lot easier for us now."
Seven states Alaska, Delaware, Iowa, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Vermont and Wisconsin have never elected a woman to Congress, according to the center. This year, Wisconsin's 2nd District features an all- female contest, Republican Josephine Musser vs. Democrat Tammy Baldwin.
Women could increase their numbers in the House by four to six members in November, according to Irwin Gertzog, a political science professor at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. Only four female House members are retiring or leaving to run for other offices, and women are strong candidates in several open seats where they, like any candidate, have a better chance of winning than if they were running against incumbents.
A woman could pick up a Senate seat in Arkansas, where former representative Blanche Lincoln (D) is favored over Fay Boozman (R), a state senator.
But two female sitting senators Democrats Barbara Boxer (Calif.) and Carol Moseley-Braun (Ill.), are in tough races. Boxer's opponent, Republican Matt Fong, has portrayed her as an apologist for President Clinton, despite Boxer's attempts to distance herself from the president. Moseley-Braun's opponent, multimillionaire businessman Peter Fitzgerald, has poured his own money into the race and leads her in several polls.
But Gertzog predicted that gender would not be an overt factor in any of the races. "In terms of voter attitudes, there are a very small number of people who won't vote for a woman because she's a woman," said Gertzog, whose book "Congressional Women: Their Recruitment, Integration and Behavior" chronicles the subject. "And there is very little evidence that there are very many people who vote for a woman because she's a woman."
Among the most important changes in recent years, many female politicians say, is an easing of the reluctance of voters both men and women to contribute to their campaigns.
"Women aren't facing the daunting fund-raising problems that I faced in 1982," said Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.), referring to the year she was first elected to Congress. "Many of the men you were asking for money had never even made a serious decision with a woman. There has been a tremendous culture change, and I think it's for a much better society."
Barbara Burrell, a University of Wisconsin political researcher, said that until 1988, female congressional candidates raised only about three-fourths of what men did. Since then, female candidates have on average raised about the same or more than male candidates. Burrell, who wrote a book called "A Woman's Place is in the House: Running for the House in the Feminist Era," said much of the fund-raising success is related to groups such as Emily's List and the Women's Campaign Fund, which have pumped millions of dollars into targeted campaigns.
Most of the women who have benefited from such groups are abortion-rights Democrats Democratic women today outnumber GOP women in Congress by 2 to 1. In California, 12 of the 13 female House members are Democrats, as are both senators.
John Fairbank, a Los Angeles-based Democratic pollster, said the West Coast in general has been more hospitable to female candidates. Many coastal communities, he said, offer the kind of highly educated, socially moderate places where women do well. He said many Republican women cross over to vote for Democratic women who favor abortion rights and emphasize education, the environment and economic development people such as Harman and Rep. Ellen Tauscher (Calif.).
Three other female Democratic challengers are given a good chance to win in California. San Diego Councilwoman Christine Kehoe one of four openly lesbian women running for Congress is challenging Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R). And in Sacramento, lawyer Sandie Dunn is challenging GOP businessman Doug Ose to fill the seat of retiring Rep. Vic Fazio (D).
Although Grace Napolitano, a Democratic state representative who had served as mayor of Norwalk, angered nine-term Rep. Esteban Edward Torres (D) and other Democrats when she announced she would run for the seat Torres was vacating he had endorsed his son-in-law and aide Jamie Casso she won the primary. Since that district is overwhelmingly Democratic, Napolitano is expected to easily win the general election.
Napolitano is a high school graduate who had five children by the time she was 25 and an alcoholic husband who died many years ago. She worked her way up through local politics and chairs an important international trade committee in the state legislature.
"More and more women are being elected to local offices, and people are seeing that women are doing a better job because they have to work twice as hard," she said in an interview in Los Angeles.
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