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US women lag in elected office

UNDER APPARENT pressure from the United States and local women, the constitutions of Iraq and Afghanistan include a provision that aims for 25 percent representation of women in their parliaments.

Here at home, we have some catching up to do. The percentage of women in the US Congress is a mere 14 percent. The United States ranks 57th among 119 countries surveyed for the percentage of women in their lower houses of parliament.

How long will it take us to reach the top 10, which include the Scandinavian countries and Spain, Belgium, and Costa Rica?

At the present pace of women elected to office the answer is forever. After a spurt of women elected to office in the late '70s and early '80s, when women moved from the single digits to the double digits, the growth of the number of women in public life has become stagnant, with a few bright exceptions.

There are 14 women senators, a record. Put in the context of history, the figure looks less optimistic. Only 33 women have served in the US Senate, and all the early ones were appointed upon the death of their husbands.

The House of Representatives claims 73 women, the same number as in the last election.

At the state level, there is cause for optimism for governors. A record number of eight women governors will have their portraits painted when their terms are up. One reason for the increase in women governors is that many states have term limits, enabling women to run for open seats.

The power of incumbency appears to be the biggest barrier to women -- and other newcomers -- getting elected to the Congress. Only a handful of incumbents in the House got defeated in the last election.

But incumbency is less of a hurdle in state races where career politicians are less common. Here the news for women is not good. Between 2000 and 2004 the number of women elected to statewide offices has gone down from a high of 285 to 254.

The trend line for women in state legislatures has been flat since 1999, hovering at 22 percent.

Most women who are elected to Congress have prior experience in their states. If these numbers do not increase, there is little hope for more parity in the Congress.

What is to be done?

We've tried to raise more money for women candidates, and that has helped. We have, from time to time declared "The Year of the Woman" and that has been more hoopla than substance.

If we are ever to have a democracy which accurately reflects its constituency, it's time to take stronger steps.

In one area, we have already done so.   Continued...

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