Once upon a time in Missouri, it was a big deal to be a female candidate for statewide office. Harriett Woods remembers being unable to win the backing of her own Democratic Party elders, all male. Why, she'd come across as nothing but a simple suburban housewife, they warned her.

Woods set out on her own in 1984 and won her race for lieutenant governor, all the while answering questions about what it meant to run as a woman. In winning, she pushed on a door that this year's candidates have shoved wide open.

Five statewide races in Missouri feature a female candidate, and one race has two. Each of the four Democrats and two Republicans is a formidable player, with political roots to match her elective ambitions. None has been waved off or likely would have listened if someone had tried.

Hardly anyone ever asks Catherine L. Hanaway what it means to run for office as a woman. A Republican candidate for secretary of state, the 40-year-old Hanaway also happens to be the first female speaker of the Missouri House. She is running against Robin Carnahan, a female member of the state's most politically successful Democratic family.

At a small fundraiser the other night in Ladue, a prosperous St. Louis suburb, Hanaway told a story about how things have changed. Not only do girls approach her with pride, Hanaway said, but a few years ago, her daughter Lucy was asked what her mother did at work.

"She's a politician," Lucy, a toddler, replied.

What does your father do, Lucy was asked; is he a politician?

"No," Lucy said, "boys can't be politicians."

Lucy has since learned better, her mother reports, but a record number of women are major-party candidates for U.S. House races across the country. There are 137 on the November ballot, up from the previous high of 124 in 2002, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Fifty-seven are incumbents, and 18 are candidates for open seats, including three races in which one woman is facing another.

Ten women -- nine Democrats and one Republican -- are on the November ballot for the U.S. Senate this year, one fewer than the record of 11 set in 1992 and tied in 2002. Among the most-watched are Florida's Betty Castor (D), so far in a dead heat with former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez (R), and Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, trying to retain the seat given to her by her father, the governor.

Karen M. White, political director of Emily's List, established 19 years ago to back pro-choice Democratic women, points to money, motivation and training. Emily's List has become the largest political action committee in the country, with nearly 100,000 members who had contributed $9.2 million to candidates by the end of September.

Membership is up more than 35 percent since 2002, and 2,000 women have moved through the group's training programs in the past two years, White said. With women still holding far fewer elective offices than their proportion of the population, White said a key goal is "to grow a farm team of women around the country."

Among the candidates backed by Emily's List in closely watched House races are Patty Wetterling, a well-known but politically untested Democrat challenging two-term Republican incumbent Mark Kennedy in Minnesota, and Lois Murphy, competing in a heavily targeted race against Republican freshman Jim Gerlach in suburban Philadelphia.

Missouri's candidates represent what has been called the "third wave." The first, notable through the 1970s, often involved women who reached office because they were wives or widows of prominent politicians. The second featured women emerging from volunteer work in civic groups or single-issue fights with city hall. The third is defined by women who earned their spurs in elective political office.

Woods recalled in an interview that her first experience with activism came in the 1960s when she complained about a loose manhole cover and cars that sped through her suburban St. Louis street. Rebuffed, she gathered enough signatures on a yellow legal pad to get action. She later made it to the local council, but crossing over to statewide races proved frustrating.

"It was a dismissal based not on being mean to me, but on the perception of women as candidates," said Woods, who teaches at Hunter College in New York and wrote "Stepping Up to Power: The Political Journey of American Women." Her victory made her the first woman elected to statewide office in Missouri.

The female candidates at the top of the Missouri ballot include Democrat Claire McCaskill, 51, the state auditor and former prosecutor who defeated Gov. Bob Holden in an August primary. She is running a close race against Republican Matt Blunt, 33, the secretary of state and son of House Majority Whip Roy Blunt.

In the battle for U.S. Senate, incumbent Christopher S. Bond (R) had a sizable lead in the most recent poll over his Democratic rival, state Treasurer Nancy Farmer. Democrat Bekki Cook, a former member of the state Board of Education who was elected secretary of state in 1994, is running for lieutenant governor. Republican Sarah Steelman, a six-year veteran of the state Senate, is running for treasurer.

The Hanaway-Carnahan race pits an experienced Republican politician against a Carnahan who has never run for office but has spent much time in the campaigns of her parents. Her late father, Mel Carnahan, was the Missouri governor who defeated Sen. John D. Ashcroft (R) posthumously for a Senate seat in 2000. Her mother, Jean, was appointed to take his place.

Robin, a lawyer, is one of two Carnahans on the ballot. Her brother Russ is a candidate for Congress who wants to succeed the retiring Richard A. Gephardt.

Missouri and its female politicians have come a long way, said Vivian Eveloff, a student and teacher of the game, but there is ground yet to cover.

"Claire [McCaskill] is the first woman I know who has said that, no matter what job she has held, her goal was to be governor," said Eveloff, director of the Sue Shear Institute for Women in Public Life here. "They've evolved a lot. If they had evolved completely, we'd have a lot more women running for legislative office."