Heidi Heitkamp, N.D. gubernatorial candidate

(WOMENSENEWS)–Women’s rights are up for grabs in this election, not only on the national scene, but in the gubernatorial and state legislative races as well. And in many cases, the laws passed in the state capitals have more do to with the every day lives of women than those passed on the federal level.

It’s in the 50 state legislatures that women’s rights are protected, promoted or eroded in issues like hate crimes, minimum wage and choice.

And in the states’ highest elected office, where governors can promote or thwart progressive efforts, the numbers of women governors is startlingly low: Of 50 governors, only three are women–Jane Hull in Arizona, Christine Todd Whitman in New Jersey and Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire. Whitman’s term expires next year. There have never been more than four.

In the legislatures themselves, the gross numbers of women at first look encouraging–but that’s deceiving.

In 1977 women held 688 of the 7,424 state legislative seats; this year, they hold 1,670–almost a three-fold increase, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

“What’s worrisome,” says Mary Hawkesworth, director of the center in New Brunswick, N.J., “is that the rate of increase has slowed–we may even be headed for a decrease.”

In each election cycle from 1977 to 1993, women gained an average of 100 seats nationwide: Last year, women gained only 18 seats in the whole country.

Women’s Numbers, Clout, Actually Waning

“And we’re losing ground in important ways,” added Hawkesworth. “We’re actually losing women in the states where we have the highest representation, like Washington and New Hampshire.”

Term limits, in effect in 18 states, are part of the reason.

“When a man is forced out of office by term limits, he’s usually replaced by another man,” said Hawkesworth. “But when women’s terms are up, they also are replaced by men. Women legislators don’t quite have the clout to ensure that another woman runs when the seat comes open.”

The future of legislation about reproductive choice–including abortion, medically accurate sexuality education and contraception–is a reason to be concerned about women’s clout in state legislatures.

Since 1995, the number of anti-choice initiatives in state legislatures has increased 300 percent, according to “Who Decides? A State-by-State Review of Abortion and Reproductive Rights,” a report from NARAL, which coordinates grassroots political action on reproductive choice.

More anti-choice legislation was introduced and enacted in the states in 1999 than in any previous year, with 439 measures introduced and 70 voted into law, according to the report. Thirty-one states have enacted bans on procedures called “partial-birth” by anti-choice forces.

“They keep us always in reaction,” said Betsy Cavendish, NARAL’s legal director. “The more anti-choice legislation is enacted, the more energy is taken away from proactive legislation to help strengthen the lives of women and children.”

Only Four States Have Strong Pro-Choice Legislatures

According to Cavendish, only four states–California, New Hampshire, Vermont and Washington–have firmly pro-choice legislatures. Eighteen states are “firmly anti-choice,” up from 13 in 1997, while 13 states have mixed records.

Both Hawkesworth and Cavendish acknowledge that more women legislators alone would not necessarily reverse the trend. “In Oregon, the state’s most conservative Republicans staged a takeover of the state legislature,” says Hawkesworth, “and they did it by running conservative, anti-choice women.” However, as a rule, women political leaders tend to be more progressive on social issues.

Of course, any legislation must be signed into law by the governor before it can take effect. Pro-choice governors now are a plurality in the nation. Thirty governors favor retaining Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that made women’s right to abortion constitutionally protected, said Cavendish. Many other governors, however, support a range of restrictions–hence, only 21 make it into NARAL’s “firmly pro-choice” category.

Heidi Heitkamp is in the ardent pro-choice category, even though she’s running for governor in North Dakota, a “firmly anti-choice” state.

“Fundamentally, I feel that this is a choice for a woman, her family, her doctor and her religious advisor to make,” she said. Her press secretary, Dale Zacher, said that choice hasn’t seriously figured in the campaign, despite the anti-choice legislature and a gubernatorial rival backed by the National Right to Life Association. “Frankly, I think our opponent knows that it’s a losing issue for him–that most voters agree with Heidi,” Zacher said.

In mid-September, Heitkamp was in the national spotlight, when a lump in her breast turned out to be malignant. The following week, she had surgery to remove the lump; a week after that she was back on the campaign trail, telling supporters, “I’ve said from the beginning that I would stay in this race, because the work that lies ahead of us is too important to neglect.”

Heitkamp received numerous letters, cards and e-mails from women sharing their own experiences with the illness and urging that she stay in the running. She also has maintained her slim, 6-percent lead in the polls.

Heitkamp is one of three women running for governor. Democrat Ruth Ann Minner in Delaware is leading in the polls and Republican Judy Martz in Montana is heavily endorsed but facing a tough challenge. If all three win, the number of women governors will be doubled.

Put More Women in the Pipeline–Please!

In addition to their impact on legislation, state races are important because they put women in the pipeline.

“State legislatures–that’s where we get new Congressional candidates,” said Roselyn O’Connell of the National Women’s Political Caucus. “And governors–that’s where we get most Presidents.”

A number of organizations are working to prime and fill the pipeline, including the caucus and the Center for American Women and Politics, which will hold a national conference for women state legislators in San Diego next fall. It will include academics, journalists and possibly legislators from overseas where far more progress has been made in achieving gender parity in elected bodies.

Chris Lombardi is a free-lance writer based in New York, covering international affairs, human rights and women’s issues.