(Photo illustration by Christopher Meighan/The Washington Post)

When Geraldine Ferraro, the history-making former vice presidential candidate, died a week ago, another history-making female politician reflected on her legacy.

“She paved the way for a generation of female leaders and put the first cracks in America’s political glass ceiling,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote in a statement with her husband, former president Bill Clinton.

Secretary Clinton is especially familiar with the glass ceiling. When she ended her candidacy for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, she thanked her supporters and said: “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it. And the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time.”

Clinton herself says she won’t take that path next time. She recently told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that she does not want to serve a second term as secretary of state and has “no intention” of running for office again.

Perhaps the torch is passing to a new generation of political women — but whose arms are outstretched? Highly visible names in national politics — Bachmann, Giffords, Gillibrand, Haley, Palin, Pelosi — mask the reality that progress in electing women has stalled.

Almost three decades after Ferraro’s pathbreaking candidacy, only one other woman has won a spot on a major party’s national ticket, and we still haven’t seen our first female president or vice president. The number of women in Congress fell from 90 in 2010 to 88 today, the first decline in 30 years. In state legislatures, the number of women slipped by an alarming 81 nationwide after the last election, a full percentage point drop. Women hold less than 17 percent of congressional seats, just six of 50 governorships and not even a quarter of state legislative posts. We have yet to break the 25 percent barrier at any level, let alone achieve parity for a group that’s more than half the U.S. population. And if we’re going to see a woman in the White House in our lifetimes, we’ll need to see more women in these elective offices first.

This isn’t just about numbers, though. Women bring distinctive life experiences to politics, and research shows that female officeholders change both the policy agenda and the governing process. Whether the issue is equal access to credit (Bella Abzug) or education (Patsy Mink), family and medical leave (Marge Roukema), or inclusion of women in medical research (Pat Schroeder and Olympia Snowe), female lawmakers have long been recognized as powerful voices on behalf of women, children and families.

The next election year, 2012, could be pivotal in bringing new female faces into the political picture. With the reapportionment and redistricting following the 2010 census, we’re likely to see major shifts in both Congress and state legislatures as longtime incumbents retire, current lawmakers confront new constituencies and new seats are added in key states. (It’s no coincidence that the last giant increase in female candidates occurred in 1992, another post-census election.) At least eight of the 33Senate races in 2012 will feature open seats. And recent election cycles have shown us that the electorate is volatile and primed for change. Incumbency is no longer a near-guarantee of victory — and in some cases, it may even be a negative. These forces give newcomers an unparalleled opportunity to break into the system.

But the election of more women won’t happen on its own. In a study of state legislators conducted by our organization, the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University, almost twice as many women as men said they decided to run only after it was suggested to them, while nearly twice as many men as women said the decision to run was entirely theirs. We frequently observe that men are apt to wake up, look in the mirror and think, “I’d make a great state senator!” Female candidates more often need to be recruited.

One woman who started as an advocate for education, ended up on her local school board and then in the state legislature before rising still further, begins her official online bio by admitting, “Patty Murray never planned to enter politics, but today she is serving her fourth term in the U.S. Senate as a member of the Democratic Leadership.” Adding to the challenge, about a third of female state representatives, compared with only about a quarter of men, say someone tried to discourage them from running — most often an officeholder or party official.

Political parties remain the largest roadblock on women’s path to public office. If either major party made it a real priority to elect more women — with more than just an occasional tip of the straw boater to efforts at inclusion — we’d see immediate and substantial progress. But the old boys’ network retains its grip on power. At the local level, both parties draw largely from the same shallow pool of candidates — the ones who decide to seek office themselves (usually men). As for building a more gender-balanced ballot? The parties leave that to the groups that focus solely on finding female candidates.

Organizations across the political spectrum — from Emily’s List to the Susan B. Anthony Fund, from Emerge America (for Democrats) to the Excellence in Public Service Series (for Republicans) — have made significant efforts to advance women in politics. But it shouldn’t fall to women’s groups alone to generate slates of female candidates. Electing women should be on the minds of all who select and promote candidates. The pipeline that would fill with women at the local level and channel them into successively higher offices may not be empty now, but we need more than a trickle — we need a torrent.

Which women should step forward to run? Political women typically come from professions more common for women in general: education, nursing, social work and, more recently, the law. But to get many more women involved, we need to look beyond traditional sources. Three recent examples: Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) worked for an Internet start-up that eventually became RealNetworks. Former representative Heather Wilson (R-N.M.), currentlyrunning for the Senate, had a career as an Air Force officerand is an expert on defense, arms control and business development. Rep. Nan Hayworth (R-N.Y.) is a retired ophthalmologist.

Eager for more female candidates, including some who don’t fit the traditional patterns, we’re working on the 2012 Project — a national, nonpartisan CAWP campaign in collaboration with California political strategist Mary Hughes to increase the number of women in federal and state legislative offices. Our goal is to identify and engage accomplished women 45 and older to run for office, women who already have established careers and reduced family responsibilities. We are especially seeking women from fields and industries underrepresented in elective offices, including finance, science, technology, energy and health care.

We want to inspire thousands of women to ponder a new idea: that their talents and experience might equip them to run for office.

Here are a few candidates who are heeding this call and considering races for the state legislature or Congress:

l A Pennsylvania Republican entrepreneur and expert in health-care and biotech management who encountered the 2012 Project at an Association for Women Entrepreneurs event. Her children are grown, and she believes that her skills can make government better.

l  A Florida Democrat who is a retired teacher and current real estate agent, and who heard about the project at a Women’s Council of Realtors event. She cares deeply about education and has been politically active at the local and state levels. She sees that now is her chance to run.

l A Republican lawyer in Louisiana motivated to run by inequities in health care. She believes that vulnerable people don’t get the care they need because the system is broken, inefficient and difficult to navigate.

l A New York Democrat, owner of an online solar and renewable-energy business, who is considering a run to address issues important to her: progress on alternative energy and key environmental concerns, as well as access to education.

They’re in the vanguard, but others must follow. As Ferraro once said, “Every time a woman runs, women win.” We can’t afford to miss the unique opportunity for that victory in 2012. Once that door closes, it won’t be as wide open again until after the next census — and we can’t wait until 2022.

Debbie Walsh is director, and Kathy Kleeman is senior communications officer, at the Center for American Women and Politics, part of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.

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