Susan Rose (WOMENSENEWS)–Does it matter whether we have more women in office?

The battle over abortion funding in health reform and the regressive Stupak amendment in the health care bill seems to answer that question loud and clear. Yes.

Women’s political organizations throughout the country are intensively recruiting candidates to run for office so women can really start having more control over their destiny.

But when more women run, do more women win?

With elections for both governor and U.S. Senate this November, much attention is focused on the key Democratic and Republican candidates for these seats. Out of seven seats in California, three are women.

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer is running for a fourth term; wealthy Republican businesswoman Carly Fiorina is running in a June 8 primary race to unseat Boxer; and Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay, is making a bid for the governor seat being vacated by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is termed out.

The 2010 elections could also result in a major increase in gender representation throughout state offices.

Declared candidates for statewide office include: Secretary of State Debra Bowen, running for reelection; Janice Hahn for lieutenant governor; Kamala Harris for attorney general; Gloria Romero for superintendent of schools; and Mimi Walters for treasurer. The face of California state government may look very different by 2011.

Boxer Running for Fourth Term

In the U.S. Senate race, Boxer is running for a fourth term. Beloved by liberals, she is a passionate environmentalist and women’s rights advocate. She ran her first campaign as a grassroots operation that skeptics declared would never work. That network has served her well over the years and is up and running.

Depending on the Republican primary, Boxer could face Fiorina, whose claim of success as the CEO at Hewlett-Packard has been disparaged in the media. Her career there ended when she was forced to resign after an intense battle she lost with the company’s board of directors.

After undergoing treatment for breast cancer, Fiorina, in public meetings and on her Web site, appears with a shaved head as a result of chemotherapy. She has spoken out against the recent federal taskforce limiting mammograms for women in their 40s. Gutsy, but will it translate into votes?

Fiorina’s opponents on June 8 are Orange County conservative Chuck Devore and moderate ex-Congressman Tom Campbell. The latter is well respected in California governance circles but has had a difficult time making it through Republican primaries.

In her bid for governor, Republican Meg Whitman has crafted a three-part campaign message: jobs, education and government accountability–and she sticks to it. Whitman has developed a savvy media program that has inundated the Internet with outreach to women, Latinos, veterans, farmers and elected officials in an effort to bring these constituencies into the Republican fold.

Whitman faces ex-Governor Jerry Brown, who has evolved from years as a candidate for president, mayor of Oakland and currently California attorney general. Brown has experienced all levels of government–local, state and federal–and has not been afraid to get his hands dirty where it matters most to voters: the delivery of services. All of Brown’s primary challengers have dropped out.

Different Styles, Experiences, Agendas

Different styles, experiences and political agendas are represented among the three women who have declared their candidacies for the U.S. senate and gubernatorial races.

Boxer has a long history in government and the public sector. Since her first run for Congress in 1982, she has consistently won the support of California voters. Boxer is known as a fighter and has a track record of getting legislation passed.

Whitman, vying for governor, and Fiorina for Senate, represent corporate success but have no credentials in governance.

Most recently, Fiorina put $2.5 million of her own money into her U.S. Senate campaign. Whitman’s net worth is $1.2 billion and she seems committed to spending whatever is necessary to win. But California has a history of wealthy candidates who have flamed out.

Both Whitman and Fiorina have demonstrated a lack of civic engagement by admitting they have not voted in several elections. Their challenge is to convince voters that they represent change and not business as usual.

The current economic free fall in the state of California could conceivably affect the outcome of the 2010 elections.

Incumbents who want to hold their seats must persuade an unhappy electorate–divided over health insurance reform and frustrated by the administration’s inability to fix an ailing economy–that public experience outweighs the need for new blood.

Sen. Barbara Boxer speaks out at a pro-choice rally on Capitol Hill.The inrush of female candidates throughout California recalls the national scene of 1992.

In that year, four women were elected to the U.S. Senate, tripling the number of existing members already in the upper house. It was the year that California senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, Patty Murray (Washington) and Carol Moseley Braun (Illinois) were elected, along with 24 first-term female Representatives. It became known as the "year of the woman."

The impetus for this sudden surge was likely the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. In October of 1991, when Anita Hill testified about her sexual harassment experiences with Thomas, millions of Americans sat riveted before their TV sets. Angry and frustrated women organized. Pink buttons sprang onto lapels with the logo "I believe Anita Hill."

Hearings Symbolized Lack of Power

Rep. Barbara Boxer and six of her House colleagues marched up the steps of the Senate to protest the actions of the Judiciary Committee. The hearings, with their all-male member committee, symbolized the lack of power and representation women had in the U.S. Congress.

The number of women in elective office has not increased significantly since that heady, high-water year.

Nationally, women hold only 24 percent of state legislative offices and 23 percent of statewide offices. In the U.S. Senate women hold 17 percent of the seats and in the House of Representatives the percentage is a tiny bit lower–16.8 percent–but when you round it off, it’s ditto.

Since 1992, the number of women in the U.S. Senate has gone from six to only 17 members.

California has two women in the U.S. Senate, but numbers are down throughout the state. It currently has only 33 or 27.5 percent women in the state legislature, six of whom will be termed out in 2010, according to California List. Only one woman holds statewide office: Secretary of State Debra Bowen.

Term limits and the pattern of women running at a later age have slowed the number of women in the political pipeline.

Mary Hughes, nationally-known California political consultant, has created The 2012 Project in partnership with the Center for American Women and Politics, at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., to achieve gender balance in elective office.

The project will target women over 45 years of age from underrepresented fields and industries to run for state legislatures and Congress and connect them to existing resources ready to help them become successful candidates.

The Clarence Thomas hearings may not have produced long-term change, but efforts like the Stupak amendment might result in more women running for office.

Watch and see. This year California will be a testing ground.

Susan Rose served eight years on the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors.

She is a former executive director of the Los Angeles City Commission on the Status of Women and member of the California Fair Employment and Housing Commission, the state civil rights agency. She writes about local government and women and politics.

For more information:

California List

Facts on Women Officeholders, Candidates and Voters, Center for American Women and Politics

Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas Hearings