Despite undisputed political gains in the decade since the Maryland General Assembly approved the Equal Rights Amendment, the 31 women now serving in the 188-member legislature are awkwardly trying to find their place in an institution that remains undeniably male.
"A lot of decisions are still made when the boys are together," said Del. Lucille Maurer (D-Montgomery), who came to the General Assembly in 1969 after serving on the Montgomery County Board of Education. "Even now it is sometimes an uphill battle for the most elementary legislation."
The intensity of male camaraderie, which surfaced rarely during the heyday of feminism in the 1970s, has seldom been more apparent than it was two weeks ago. Then, the House of Delegates defeated a bill requiring the state to give the details of state employes' pensions plans to their spouses--half of whom are women.
One delegate, V. Lanny Harchenhorn, a Republican from Carroll County, said during floor debate that the measure was comparable to requiring a 10-year-old boy to get permission from his mother to buy a "dirty" magazine. Del. Frank B. Pesci (D-Prince George's) termed the bill "an invasion of privacy."
"We have not heard that kind of debate in years," said an angry Del. Bert Booth (D-Baltimore County), chairman of the women's legislative caucus and a member of the legislature since 1975. She echoed a chorus of legislators--women and men--who said they were distressed by what they perceived as the "chauvinistic" character of debate. "It was just unbelievable," she said.
Although women legislators, aided by sympathetic male colleagues, managed to pass the pension bill a few days later on a vote of reconsideration, the episode left many wondering whether a decade of accomplishments was suddenly about to vanish.
"In general, people are saying things out loud and laughing about things that they wouldn't have a few years ago," said Del. Nancy Kopp (D-Montgomery), chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee. "There are fewer constraints."
After their hard-fought successes on more controversial legislation in past years--such as stringent criminal punishment for rapists and new rules on alimony and marital property settlements--women now find extraordinary reticence in the legislature on issues that seem simple by comparison, such as money for battered spouse programs. Many blame a new federal attitude for the change in atmosphere in the State House halls.
"It's coming from the federal government on down," said Constance R. Beims, the patronage chief for Gov. Harry Hughes, who said she considers the sex, race and regional background of every applicant for a state-appointed job. "As far as civil rights and equal opportunity go, there is a mean spirit in the land."
The resurgence of "blatant chauvinism," as one women described it, has caused several legislators to renew their enthusiasm for the seven-year-old women's legislative caucus, which was the first founded in the United States.
"A few weeks ago I might have said we didn't need the caucus anymore," said one of Montgomery County's 13 women delegates, who asked not to be named, shortly after the first pension bill vote. "But today, I'm not so sure. This was the most depressing day I've had down here."
The history of the past decade included a string of victories for women officeholders in the state. They forced passage of critical bills on women's issues and ascended to leadership rolls previously reserved for men. Women now lead one policy committee in the House of Delegates and count among their ranks the Senate majority leader, Rosalie Abrams, who also heads the State Democratic Party. Maryland laws must be written in "sex-neuter" language. And the women's caucus, which has received indirect grants from Ms. magazine to help train young women for careers in politics, is viewed by national women's organizations as a model of women's progress in a predominantly male domain.
Yet the appearance of women armed with new political power has not suppressed the fraternal atmosphere that permeates the State House corridors and its environs. Few female legislators partake in the rituals so popular among some of their male counterparts--the nocturnal visits to local bars and discotheques or the cigar-smoking gossip sessions in the House and Senate lounges.
In recent years the women's caucus has operated more as a support system than a spawning ground for political wheeling and dealing. Two years ago, the caucus worked aggressively to defeat a bill to give tax credits to the Prince George's County Jaycees, a group that was under court challenge because it refused to admit women. But recently, the caucus has spent more time on broader issues, such as banking bills and budget items, a reflection of the wider concerns of its membership.
"Early on, because there was so much to do for traditional women's legislation, we had to concentrate our efforts more," Booth said. "Now we can look at a wider array of issues."
The breadth of interests among women appears to serve them well individually, particularly in the face of the recent shift in male attitudes. The majority of women who have succeeded in the legislature, and who are respected most by their male colleagues, are those who are not identified solely with women's issues. Kopp, for example, is an expert on the budget; Del. Helen Koss (D-Montgomery), is chairman of the influential House Constitutional and Public Law Committee and an expert on workers' compensation laws; Maurer has expertise in education.
Their backgrounds, too, are becoming more diverse, although most still come to the legislature as married women in their mid to late 30s whose careers began in public interest groups and civic organizations. (As with many of the men, a number of women legislators have divorced or separated since this four-year term began). Few have come through traditional political machines, which may explain the preponderance of women from Montgomery County, where the old-style political apparatus gave way after World War II to civic organizations that have since served as stepping stones for many politicians.
Baltimore, by contrast, still is cemented in the machine politics of a past era and women there have had fewer successes gaining office. The New Democratic Club, a group of liberal, middle-class and well-educated Baltimore whites that formed in opposition to the Vietnam War, and the predominantly black East Side Democratic Club, are among the few in which women have excelled. Only six of Baltimore's 44 legislators are women.
But overall, gains have been made in the State House. One male legislative leader, who declined to be named, noted that his colleagues occasionally make nasty jokes about women, but still must plead for Koss' support when they want their bills to pass favorably in her committee.
"I think the role of women in the legislature is better than it was 10 years ago," said Kopp, a political scientist who also worked as an aide on Capitol Hill. "Women legislators have become more and more members of the system."
Part of the reason, some women explain, is that the women's movement in Maryland has never been militant. "The women's movement is still strong in Maryland, but the nice thing is that it isn't radical," said Hughes staffer Connie Beims. "It's civic-minded and broad-based."
A prime example of the quiet and cautious strategy used by feminists here is that of newly arrived Montgomery County Del. Mary Boergers, a formerly legislative staffer for the state chapter of the National Organization for Women. Boergers, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, has tried to limit her concerns about women's issues to low-key observations, and to emphasize her interest in taxation and budget items.
"I had the feeling that a number of men who knew me as a lobbyist were somewhat concerned that here was this flaming feminist who was going to shake everything up," Boergers said. "But I think I have disabused them of that."
Most of the women legislators say they hope they are strong enough as a group to thwart the "macho" attitude displayed during the recent floor debates on women's issues. They enjoy remembering how they killed the Jaycees bill, and say they can block other legislation if they choose to.
But the unease remains. Ten years of legislative advances have not necessarily meant attitude changes. Women control some leadership positions, but not many.
"Women still do not have the luxury of mediocrity," said Beims. "They still have to be the best candidate, their bills still have to be the best written, they still have to present the best documents."