Susan Matthews had a simple plan for voting in the District elections last Tuesday: Sharon Pratt Dixon for mayor and Eleanor Holmes Norton for D.C. delegate to Congress. In other races, the Georgetown University law student voted for "whatever women were on the ticket," even some she didn't know.
Likewise, Ward 6 resident Veronica Cook said she voted "mostly for ladies," adding that, "I figure men have messed up enough."
For years, women have been frustrated in their pursuit of the District's highest elective offices. Dixon's and Norton's unprecedented victories last Tuesday in the Democratic primaries for mayor and D.C. delegate signaled a major breakthrough for women's political activism here.
"What it says is that women as a political force in this city have arrived and they are to be reckoned with," said Joslyn N. Williams, a labor leader and chairman of the D.C. Democratic State Committee.
Political consultants and others said Tuesday's election may be part of a national trend toward increasing the number of women in high elective office. They say it also may reflect a yearning among D.C. residents to change the face of the District's political establishment, symbolized by Mayor Marion Barry.
"I think people were looking for integrity, new faces and outsiders, and women are considered all of those," said Celinda Lake, who conducted polls for Norton.
In Maryland, which has a woman senator and two women members of Congress, three women were able to unseat male incumbents in state Senate primaries Tuesday.
Absent polling data, it's unclear how much the D.C. candidates' sex affected voters' decisions. However, women fared well against men in most of the city primary races.
Dixon, a former utility company executive and national Democratic Party official making her first bid for elective office, defeated four strong opponents in the Democratic mayoral primary with 35 percent of the vote.
Norton, a Georgetown University law professor and former Carter administration official, captured the Democratic nomination for D.C. delegate with 40 percent of the vote, despite a last-minute controversy over her failure to file D.C. income tax returns for the past seven years.
D.C. school board member Linda W. Cropp (Ward 4) won a three-way contest for the Democratic nomination for an at-large D.C. Council seat, with nearly twice as many votes as second-place finisher Johnny Barnes, a former congressional aide.
In the Democratic primary race for two newly created offices for shadow senator, Ward 5 Advisory Neighborhood Commission member Florence Pendleton, the only woman among five contenders, finished second to Jesse L. Jackson in total votes, winning a spot on the Nov. 6 general election ballot.
D.C. Council member Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6) was upset by Harold Brazil in the Democratic primary. Brazil capitalized on growing disenchantment with the veteran council member and appealed to a large number of relatively new voters in the ward.
For years, the conventional wisdom among District politicians was that women faced an insurmountable barrier to winning the city's top elective offices because of deep-seated feelings among clergy members, opinion leaders and average voters that women weren't well suited to hold the posts.
In 1982, Patricia Roberts Harris, a former Carter administration official, mounted a vigorous campaign against Barry, citing government inefficiency and corruption, but was crushed by Barry in the Democratic primary, 59 percent to 35 percent. Four years later, Republican Carol Schwartz ran a strong campaign against Barry in the general election, but finished second to the mayor with 32 percent of the votes.
Schwartz, who retired from politics, said she does not think sex was a major factor in Tuesday's election outcome.
She said the impact of sex concerns is "balanced out" by voters inclined to support women over men, and voters who are biased against women.
According to Sonya Sims, a press aide to Dixon, "Women and the younger generation were more apt to embrace her campaign." But sex may have been less important an issue than disenchantment among white and middle-class black voters with Barry and the District's entrenched political establishment, from the appearance of election returns and exit interviews of voters.
Some consultants and political operatives who monitored the races suggested that many voters were anxious for change that went beyond a mere reshuffling of old politicians to new seats. That yearning may have been enhanced, however, by the appeal of women candidates, they said.
"I really believe that there was an undercurrent, a silent outrage" against the status quo, said Williams, the D.C. Democratic leader.
Some political operatives believe that more males and females voted this time for women than in previous elections, in a city where nearly 59 percent of the registered voters are women.
The operatives suggest a complex, timely chain of events helped women candidates this year. The event mentioned most often is Barry's drug and perjury trial.
Lake said the protracted trial "set the whole tone in terms of people's mood to move on."
More than the allegations of drug use by the mayor, women were repulsed by testimony of Barry's philandering, said Nikki Heidepriem, a political consultant with Foreman and Heidepriem.
"Women were very embarrassed for Effi" Barry, Heidepriem said.
The Barry trial underscored issues of leadership integrity, Heidepriem said, adding that voters generally believe women have more integrity than men.
She said the trial also magnified public discontent with city services, fiscal problems and overall city management.
Ward 6 resident Carl Nelson said some of those frustrations led him to vote for Dixon. "It is time to see what women can do," he said.
To some extent, women's strong showing in the elections reflects the national trend toward greater acceptance of women in leadership roles, said Phyllis Jones, a veteran political operative who managed John A. Wilson's successful Democratic primary campaign for council chairman.
Women candidates also were helped by issues such as pay inequity, child care, education and health care. Women, who head the majority of households in the District, are affected most by those issues.
In the mayor's race, both Dixon and council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) tried to galvanize women's support by pitching those issues from a female perspective. Both women, who are divorced and have two children each, also symbolized the challenges District women face.
"It's the kind of thing that almost engenders a camaraderie because a lot of women can relate to that," Williams said.
According to Williams, Dixon's intellect and tenacity "appealed to the pride of female voters," and her "quiet dignity" is evidence of the "kind of personality that commands the respect of male voters."
Articulate and forceful, the former power company executive neutralized stereotypes about women being passive, according to Heidepriem. Dixon took the offensive, depicting her opponents as inept officials who failed to tackle the city's social and economic problems.
Dixon also took risks on campaign issues that her rivals avoided. She pledged to fire 2,000 city employees, who make up a large voting bloc in the city.
"Certainly people thought Sharon's theme of cleaning house was very clever because that's what women do. That was obviously something people in the District were looking for," Heidepriem said.
Heidepriem noted that while other candidates avoided criticizing Barry, Dixon called for his resignation.
Some people said, sex aside, voters simply realized Dixon, who outshone her opponents in public forums and key televised debates, was the best choice among the five candidates.