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Connecticut's Powerful Women

Half the state's congressional delegation is female, making it one of the top five nationwide

WITH only a half hour to squeeze in an interview before she is to give a talk, United States Rep. Nancy Johnson (R) speaks rapidly and decisively. She radiates so much energy, one wonders if her next activity is a quick jog along the Charles River.

The busy Connecticut lawmaker, here to address a group at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School, is one of several successful women gaining prominence in the male-dominated world of politics.

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In local as well as state offices, more and more women in this New England state are running for political office and being elected. Three of Connecticut's six-member House delegation are women. By percentage, that puts Connecticut in the top tier of states represented by women in the House of Representatives.

"For a woman to run for Congress, much less get elected, is the exception to the rule," she says. "We got there because we have already demonstrated leadership and commitment and strength in a way that our male colleagues haven't necessarily had to demonstrate." Some observers predict that Johnson will run for governor next year.

Women have campaigned hard for public office in Connecticut. But besides winning offices, they have taken on key leadership roles. Rep. Barbara Kennelly (D), dean of the state delegation, serves as chief deputy whip in the House. Both Kennelly and Johnson are the only two women who serve on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. Their colleague, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D), serves on the Budget Committee.

Despite their growing success in politics, the women bristle at the label "women politicians." They would rather be known as effective leaders in their own right.

"We didn't get to where we are because we are women," Johnson says. "We got there because we're capable leaders."

Over the last 10 years, perceptions have changed somewhat as to the roles women should play as politicians, Johnson notes.

"Both the media and our colleagues tend to be less governed by the assumption that we're there because we're interested in women's and children's issues," Johnson says. "So if you're a woman who comes in with a keen interest in economics, your male colleagues don't come in with a second look."

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Nevertheless, they have not shied away from women's issues. Kennelly has been a key leader on child-support enforcement, while Johnson has led the fight for foster-care reform. Representative DeLauro has been a strong advocate for women's health care.

Some women attribute their success to Connecticut's long history of women leaders. Connecticut women were active in the suffrage movement early this century and before. Clare Boothe Luce and Chase Going Woodhouse served in Congress in the 1940s.

ONE of the prominent women leaders in the history of the state was Gov. Ella Grasso (D). Serving from 1974 to 1980, Ms. Grasso was the first woman elected to a governorship who did not succeed her husband.

"I really feel that having Ella Grasso elected in her own right made all the difference," says Representative Kennelly. "Once she crossed that barrier, it really made it so much easier for the rest of us."

And in the state capital of Hartford, the trend continues, with a woman lieutenant governor, Eunice Groark, and a woman secretary of state, Pauline Kezer. Twenty-five percent of the state legislature is female, the 13th-highest percentage nationwide, according to the National Women's Political Caucus in Washington. In the 1990 state legislative elections, 75 women ran for office; last fall, 106 women ran.

One reason more Connecticut women are serving in public office is their local activism. New England's town meeting-style of government, in which all citizens participate, has paved the way for many, Johnson says.

"I think the New England concept of town government and their New England meetings on the budget and things like that," says Johnson, "have resulted in a lot of women being involved in the political process at the town level."

Such activism at the local level brings experience and leads to opportunities for higher office. Kennelly started her political career in community work and eventually became a Hartford city councilor.

"I had knocked on the door of City Hall so often, I decided, `Why shouldn't I go?' " she recalls. "And that's how it all started. It wasn't planned at all."

Nevertheless, growing up in a politically active family may have helped, too. Kennelly's father, John Bailey, was a legendary state political boss in Connecticut and served as national chairman of the Democratic Party. Representative DeLauro's husband, Stan Greenberg, is President Clinton's chief pollster.

"Many of these women are well-connected politically so they bring a certain amount of power with them," says Harriett Woods, president of the National Women's Political Caucus.

Yet even if some women are more politically connected, most started their careers at the local level.

State Sen. Catherine Cook (R), for example, kicked off her political career by serving on her local school board for eight years.

"It's only a natural result that we're able to reach higher office because we're prepared for it," Senator Cook says.

These days Cook is tackling important economic concerns in her southeastern district, considered the region of the country most dependent on the defense industry. A ranking member of the state Commerce Committee, she is working on defense conversion and international trade issues. She was recently nominated by Johnson to serve on Clinton's Defense Conversion Committee.

Having women delegates in the state legislature has also changed the work environment somewhat. Recently, Cook helped push forward a requirement that all legislators and their staff be trained on issues of sexual harassment. It wasn't easy, she says.

Key male leaders "don't always look to us as being capable of providing leadership on policymaking issues," she says. "But we're helping them understand that's not true."

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