All right--now what?
Women candidates who broke the tape by the hundreds in political races in California and across the country will now have the chance--and the obligation--to show just what makes them different, and how to make that difference work for them and their constituents.
At a news conference in Washington on Thursday, women's political groups who had encouraged and funded women candidates were counting the numbers like winning stacks of chips.
"As a result of the success of this year, we can now spend our time getting women elected instead of explaining why we need to," said Jane Danowitz, executive director of the Women's Campaign Fund. "We're not in the Bush leagues any more--we're in a league of our own."
From a feminist First Lady in the White House to a female majority on San Francisco's Board of Supervisors, and a higher turnout of women voters than in years past (54% of all voters, according to some polls), women could applaud their gains with some cautionary notes.
First, the score card of record-breakers nationwide:
* Senate. Four of the 11 women candidates won, for a total of six women in the 100-member body. "It took us 200 years to elect the first Democratic woman to the U.S. Senate in her own right (Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland)," said Ellen Malcolm, president of the Democratic women's political action committee, EMILY's List. "Six years later, we hit a grand slam by electing four colleagues to join her." Republican Sen. Nancy Landon Kassenbaum of Kansas is the sixth.
* House of Representatives. Of the 106 women who ran, 48 were elected, half of them newcomers. (The greatest gain before was five, in 1954, when women went from 11 to 16.) About a quarter of the women are minorities, most are Democrats and all newly elected members support abortion rights.
* State offices. All of the women who ran for governor in three states lost; four of the seven who ran for lieutenant governor in various states won, and all four who ran for attorney general in various states won.
* State legislatures. Ruth Mandel, director of the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University, said nearly 20% of state legislators will be women. The largest number is Washington state, at nearly 40%, and the smallest is Kentucky, at 4%.
Among the firsts for women, according to the Women's Campaign Fund:
The nation's first elected African-American woman senator, Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois; California is the first state with two women senators; Georgia and North Carolina both elected their first black congresswomen; California elected the nation's first Mexican-American congresswoman, Los Angeles Democrat Lucille Roybal-Allard, New York elected the first Puerto Rican woman in Congress, and Virginia elected a woman to Congress for the first time.
In Maryland, voters endorsed by 2 to 1 a constitutional guarantee of a woman's right to have an abortion. In Arizona, voters rejected by a similar ratio a measure that would have amended the state Constitution to ban abortion except to save a woman's life. The Legislature could have made exceptions for rape or incest.
And in Iowa, voters rejected by 52% to 48% an initiative to put an equal rights amendment in the state Constitution.
Mandel said Tuesday's elections signal "a phenomenal victory and increase if you look at women's political history. (But) it's inching forward if you stand at gender parity and look back at how far women have to come to get there."
Some things have not changed. The numbers are still low compared to the percentage of women in the population. Most women winners are not novices to the political system--"women have long stood in readiness," Mandel said. And they had to spend a lot of money to run.
Incumbency and its advantages are still a barrier; 22 of the 24 newcomers won in races where there was no incumbent. Question is, as Ross Perot would say, can they now use the system to change the system?
"They're coming with the banner of change waving over their heads, and they will be expected to bring it," Mandel said.
"I think we have to be careful of our expectations, just as we had to be careful of the Year of the Woman," Rutgers' Mandel told The Times on Thursday. "The expectations associated with that land on the shoulders of these newly elected women, no matter that they constitute 6% of the Senate and 11% of the House. . . . It will be doing them a disservice if we expect them to create an instant revolution."
Although women are no more unanimous on policy matters than are men, Thursday's panel in Washington named several items that will probably be on many women legislators' agendas, such as family leave, health care, abortion rights--which coincide with those of President-elect Bill Clinton. His home state of Arkansas was also home to the state legislator who, in the 1970s, coined the phrase "barefoot and pregnant" to describe how women should be kept out of public life.