Ten years ago, when they began trying to organize the first conference for women state legislators, nobody knew how many they were, who they were or where they were.
The 50 who were finally collected for a zeekend in the Poconos in 1972 had never met each other or even heard of each other. There were few feminists in that group; their legislatures had virtually no women's caucuses -- or consciousness.
Eugenia Chapman of Illinois, a veteran "only woman" in the state house of representatives, where they began speeches "Eugenia and Gentlemen..." went to that conference. So did Norma Paulus of Oregon, who read an article one day about The Queen Bee Syndrome, and went to a mirror to confront herself -- "that was me!" And so did Minnette Doderer of Iowa, who can be heard on the transcripts of that meeting saying, "I was never discriminated against."
As observers remember it, the women were almost all inexperienced. They were reformers fresh out of the local school board or League of Women Voters.They were above things like patronage, even above "politics." They had trouble with words like power. They even had trouble talking about themselves as "women."
Jeane Kirkpatrick, still an academic then, doing research for a book on women and politics, was heard to mumble in repeated wonderment, "These women are so pure!"
Last weekend, women state legislators met again. The Eagleton Institute's Center for the American Woman and Politics sponsored its second conference on the foggy shore of Cape Code. This time, three women selected by their peers in each of 15 state legislatures shared strategies and talked politics.
The statistical landmarks of a decade were easy to list. In 1972, there were only 344 women in all the state legislatures. Today there are 908 women holding 12 percent of the seats. They range from Mississippi and Alabama with all-male Senates and two women in each House, to New Hampshire, where 29 percent of the seats are filled by women.
There were also some personal landmarks among the handful of secondtimers. Paulus, former Queen Bee, now Oregon's secretary of state, told the group: "We've all traveled the same road, encountered the same roadblocks and detours." Doderer, who had never been "discriminated against," exhorted others in her workshops: "Hey, the only thing we got going for us is that we're women." Chapman, of "Eugenia and Gentlemen," sat next to me counting up her 32 colleagues.
To be sure, the women who met this weekend were not quite so pure. Pure, after all, had really meant aloof, reticent, even self-effacing. Pure had been on a pedestal, instead of in the battle.
Ruth Mandel, of the Eagleton Institute, organized both conferences. She says the women legislators a decade ago "were much more removed. They were a tiny, tiny minority of women. Now we have a much larger mix of the population. They include a larger element of very pragmatic, ambitious, sophisticated political people who know how to work within that system."
These women seemed much more at ease with themselves, their roles and each other. If the women in 1972 felt uncomfortable with power, these women want more of it. If the women in 1972 thought that being identified as "women," or identifying with women, made them more vulnerable, the women in 1982 are just as likely as not to see this as part of their strength and their responsibility.
Not one of them deals exclusively with women's issues and yet all of them acknowledged this "second" constituency. In just this short amount of time, they have been responsible for a disproportionate amount of the legislation to help women, from rewriting strip-search laws to revising credit laws.
They have disagreed as Democrats and Republicans. They have taken opposite stands, sometimes on abortion, other times on reapportionment.
As Mandel observed, "The first thing I noticed at the conference was the diversity of opinion." Yet by the end of the conference she was most impressed by "their sense that over the next years they must be for each other and women."
They have covered a lot of political ground, a lot of rough emotional terrain in 10 years. At least for one weekend on foggy Cape-land, women who make laws across this country shared a sense of their own community.