Fifteen years after women began moving into electoral politics, they have achieved modest success in winning seats in state legislatures -- 16 percent of the people serving in state assemblies are women -- but they have won less than a third of that, a mere 5 percent, of the seats in Congress, where the laws of the land are made.
One of the striking visual phenomena of the Iran-contra hearings, for example, has been the absence of any women members of Congress on the committees investigating the affair. With the exception of Fawn Hall, who had a cameo appearance as the all-American secretary, this drama has featured an entirely male cast of characters.
The hearings are examining abuse of power at the highest levels of government. The fact that no women are involved speaks volumes about how little political power the majority of the population has secured. The hearings could be a throwback to 15 years ago, before women got into elected office in any numbers. But even in the era of the Watergate hearings, we had Rep. Barbara Jordan of Texas, who raised a voice of moral authority that remains unforgettable. Thirteen years later, there is no Barbara Jordan on the committee.
Ruth Mandel, director of the Institute of Woman and Politics at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute, says progress has been slow and women need to look at how to accelerate it to "move more quickly toward a balance of sexes in political leadership." That means a significant increase in women candidates and a major effort to recruit women candidates, she says.
Yet women do not yet see themselves as political leaders and that drawback is reinforced daily. "They turn on the hearings and they see a government committee which is 100 percent men. They open the newspapers and see photographs of people in foreign delegations and they are almost 100 percent men. When the visual and auditory messages of all the world around you look like someone who is not you, it takes an extra effort for you to think of yourself as belonging there. That's the importance of support systems and recruitment efforts designed to find women and help them to discover their own potential for candidacy.
"People are saying, "Let's give the women a chance,' " says Mandel. "The rhetoric has changed and women's self-concept has changed, so that women believe they can be in politics or law or medicine or business. But then there is some kind of line after the rhetoric in which people have to cross into a world that doesn't look like them. People need help in crossing that line. It's the same help people need when they walk into a room and they are 'the only one.'
"It's still a lot easier for a man to pursue a public life and have his personal life run smoothly than it is for a woman. The dual problem for women is they still have neither a domestic support system to make their lives easier while they are out campaigning nor do they have the traditional political support system of money and connections that help them into the right positions for the right nominations and appointments. Women face a formidable challenge in deciding to enter politics. It's a world inhabited by men, and women do not have the two major support systems to stand on to help them get in."
Eleanor Smeal, the outgoing president of the National Organization for Women, is planning a massive recruitment effort to get women candidates to run for Congress in 1988. She believes the post-Iran-contra atmosphere will produce the same desire for political change that occurred after Watergate, when the largest number of new members were elected to Congress since 1949.
Mandel agrees that getting women elected to Congress should be one of the most important parts of the women's agenda. "What is going on at the highest levels is boys playing with toys. What they are talking about is weapons and wars and payoffs -- all of that comes out of a vision of what's important. And while we talk a lot about how we value children, for example, that's not what we're putting the National Security Council's attention on.
"One of my frustrations in the mid-'70s was how long it took for women's organizations to recognize that getting women into office ought to be a priority. It took too long to get around to the point that getting women into office had to be one of the issues around which we organize. Not just any woman. But you can go out and find a woman who is good on your issues and support her."
The Iran-contra hearings -- on a number of different levels -- show the need for women to do just that.