THE National Women's Political Caucus for 16 years has served as a bipartisan, down-to-earth forum for discussing how political issues affect women and how women can affect the political process. The caucus's job has been tough from the start. Despite many political accomplishments for women, it's still slow going. There are still only two female United States senators and three female governors; women hold only 5 percent of the seats in the House of Representatives and 14 percent of the seats in state legislatures. With more women graduating from law schools and business schools and receiving other professional training, the prospects for more women in politics could be good. Women are gaining experience in political campaign management.
Still, anything like full equality in the apportionment of political power, as represented by elected positions, looks disappointingly off in the future. Apparently women must earn their stake in the American political system the hard way: ``We cannot blame outside barriers alone for the small number of women officeholders,'' Gov. Madeleine Kunin of Vermont told the caucus's convention in Portland, Ore., this week. ``More women ... must take personal responsibility for making the changes we feel must be made. We need highly professional, well-financed campaigns, and when we have them, we can win.''
The caucus made the right move in deciding against early endorsement of a presidential candidate for 1988, much as the big unions have decided against an early endorsement. Early endorsements in the 1984 race backfired.
A women's group endorsement, like labor's, at this early stage, could plant a ``special interest'' label on a candidacy. Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D) of Colorado might well be the personal choice of many caucus members, but prominent caucus members are reluctant to give up prior or potential commitments to male contenders, where they feel the power action lies.
The male contenders - especially the Republicans, who did not even show at the caucus's convention - are not exactly solicitous of the women's cause this time around. If high-flak issues like abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment were all there were to the women's political case, this might be understandable.
But an unjust burdening and limiting of women persists in society. Women's salaries barely rise above three-fifths of those of men. Average child-support payments by fathers continue to decline. Divorced women are hit hardest by the pension squeeze resulting from corporate mergers, staff cuts, and bankruptcies. And so on.
The male contenders may think that to win in places like the South, key to '88, they must avoid a moderate or progressive tag if Republican, and liberal if a Democrat.
But simple justice knows no labels.
It would be foolish for any of the candidates for 1988, male or female, to appear skimpy on their commitment to women's rights and needs.