WASHINGTON — Ten years after women stormed into Congress in unprecedented numbers, female candidates across the country are climbing toward another possible milestone this fall: a record haul of governorships.
Female candidates nominated by major political parties are competitive in states from coast to coast--and beyond. Hawaii voters are certain on Nov. 5 to elect their first female governor, either Republican Linda Lingle or Democrat Mazie Hirono.
Depending on the outcomes of several other races that are too close to call, the elections could roughly double the ranks of women who are state chief executives. There now are five.
The rise of women in state politics has national implications. With more women serving as governors, more will be considered potential presidential or vice presidential candidates.
In recent times, the path to the White House has run through the statehouse. Four of the last five presidents, including the current President Bush, were governors.
This year's gubernatorial races are critical to "building a pipeline to the presidency," said Marie Wilson, head of the White House Project, a group that promotes women for national office.
Even if none of the current female governors or gubernatorial candidates lands on a national ticket, they are laying the groundwork for another to become president or vice president.
"It shows women breaking through to a new level in American politics--being seen as a chief executive, being a final voice in decision-making," said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
"In the past, women have been seen as legislators--and that was a big breakthrough. But to be the last, the final authority, the 'buck stops here,' that is significant. It really breaks down those stereotypes."
The nation's first female governor was Nellie Tayloe Ross of Wyoming, who won a special election in 1924 to succeed her husband.
In 1974, Ella Grasso of Connecticut made history as the first female governor who was not a widow or wife of a former governor. And in the 1990s, two notable governors were Ann Richards of Texas and Christie Whitman of New Jersey, now administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Overall, 19 women have served as governors, including one who held office in Ohio for a mere 12 days. In 33 states, a woman has never been chief executive. That includes California, where female Democratic nominees twice failed in the 1990s to win the governorship.
By contrast, 206 women have served in Congress, including 13 now in the Senate and 60 in the House. A decade ago, in what became known in politics as the Year of the Woman, female candidates made huge gains on Capitol Hill, raising their ranks in Congress by more than 50%.
Now they are trying to pull off a similar feat at the highest state level. But unlike the 1992 campaigns, which followed the explosive Anita Hill--Clarence Thomas hearings, gender is not a major issue this year in most states.
Instead, what is notable about the current field is how many of the candidates have held lower statewide offices. Most of the 10 women nominated by major parties for governor are attorneys general, lieutenant governors, state treasurers or the like. One is a state party chairwoman. Another ran credibly for governor twice before as a Democratic nominee.
"They're all serious heavy hitters in their own states," said John Kohut, an analyst for the Cook Political Report. "That's an indication of how times have changed."
Most of the contests have focused less on personalities than on issues such as budgets, schools, roads, health care--or, as Kohut said, "Who's got a plan to fix what."
In Arizona, where women hold four top statewide offices, Atty. Gen. Janet Napolitano, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, said she encounters almost no questions concerning her gender. The national media calls occasionally, she said, but local reporters "just don't ask about it."
Napolitano is in a tight race with Republican Matt Salmon, a former congressman. As an attorney general and former U.S. attorney, she has an edge many female gubernatorial candidates have lacked: a hefty law-enforcement resume.
Her solid anti-crime credentials have freed Napolitano to mine for votes by talking up other issues: the economy, the budget, schools and what she calls a "Plan for Arizona Women." The plan is a compendium of positions on domestic violence, women's health and education concerns.
Napolitano still faces a tough road to victory. Arizona, generally a conservative state, has not had a Democratic governor since Bruce Babbitt left office in 1987.
If she wins, Napolitano would become the first woman elected to succeed a female governor. Republican Jane Dee Hull is ineligible to run for reelection because of term limits.