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Women Lose Ground in Elections

Excitement over the record number of women who will serve as governors in 2003 may obscure a less optimistic trend for women seeking political power: the numbers of women serving in other statewide offices and in state legislatures actually fell as a result of the 2002 elections. The number of women in the U.S. House of Representatives is unchanged from late 2002, but, in the Senate there will be one more woman due to the recent appointment of Lisa Murkowski of Alaska to serve out the unexpired term of her father who left the Senate to run for Governor.

These outcomes follow a pattern of stagnation evident in recent election cycles, according to the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), a unit of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.

With newly elected officeholders sworn in, women serve as governors in six states, with four newly elected women joining two holdovers. In the U.S. Senate there are be 14 women, and the U.S. House of Representatives has 59 women members (as well as 3 delegates). But in statewide elected executive positions overall, 79 women serve, compared with 89 in 2002. A total of 1,642 women hold 22.2 percent of state legislative seats, compared with 1,680 (22.6 percent) at the end of 2002.

"We###re pleased to see more women governors than ever before," observed Debbie Walsh, director of CAWP. "But we cannot ignore the larger trend – a slowing or even reversal of the gradual, incremental progress CAWP has been tracking since the early 1970s."

Walsh noted that gubernatorial positions are important, not just because of the power governors wield in the states, but as a pipeline to national office; four of the last five presidents have served as governors. "With fewer women in state legislatures and statewide offices, we###re draining the pool of potential candidates for governorships, the women who could rise to national office."

A variety of factors may be affecting the numbers of women holding office. Term limits and redistricting have forced long-term incumbents from legislative seats, and the numbers of women running to replace them have edged downward. Political party gatekeepers, still overwhelmingly men, generally do not consider equitable representation a priority.

"Maintaining and increasing the numbers of women in public office requires consistent, concerted work," commented Walsh. "Political parties and women###s organizations around the country must step up their efforts to recruit and support women candidates." CAWP###s research since the late 1980s has consistently demonstrated that women legislators differ from their male colleagues in the issues they address, the positions they take, and the approaches they use in lawmaking. Thus, the Center contends, electing more women has a significant impact on what government does and how it operates.

The Center for American Women and Politics, a unit of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, is a university-based research, education and public service center. Its mission is to promote greater knowledge and understanding about women###s changing relationship to politics and government and to enhance women###s influence and leadership in public life. CAWP is a leading authority in its field and a respected bridge between the academic and political worlds.