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Dixie Politics: Boys Clubs Still Prevail

Southern tradition may be behind women's failure to advance in statehouses.

Laura Hall's job is to represent her Alabama district, propose laws, and haggle over budgets. To do it effectively, she also must successfully navigate the state legislature's "good ole boy network."

Ms. Hall, a Democrat, is one of only four women in the state's 105-seat House of Representatives. When lawmakers meet in Montgomery's cavernous Capitol, Hall is easily recognizable in a sea of dark suits and ties. Yet she often must assert herself to be taken seriously.

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"Men form little groups and talk, on issues that may be affecting my district," she says. "If I feel excluded I say, 'I hope this is not a meeting going on without me.' It's a network they maintain, and as a woman you can find yourself feeling like an outsider."

Though across the country women hold a fraction of the political offices men do, the discrepancy is more pronounced in the South. As Hall and her female colleagues can attest, the number of women elected to public office in the South lags behind all other regions.

Most Southern states have no women representatives in Congress, and minuscule numbers of women hold statewide offices. Of the 10 states with the fewest women elected to state legislatures, eight are below the Mason-Dixon Line. Alabama is last, with just 4.3 percent of women in legislative seats.

Southern women on the move

Now, a small but growing grass-roots movement is emerging across the South to change those numbers.

"There's a real trend toward more women becoming involved in Southern public-service leadership than ever be fore," says William Rogers of the John C. Stennis Center for Public Service, a federal agency in Starkville, Miss., that recently brought together hundreds of Southern women political leaders in Lexington, Ky. "That doesn't mean that rapid change is about to take place, but when we look at where we've come in the past five years, it's incredible."

Many reasons exist for why few women in the South are involved in politics. Among them: Women often find it hard to raise campaign war chests, they haven't developed support systems to help them get elected, and women role models are few.

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"Success breeds success," says Kathy Ashe (R), a state representative from Georgia.

But experts suggest the region's conservatism also plays a role. "We have a great tradition of doing things the same way that we've always done them, and women in office is different," says Mr. Rogers. "We've also raised generations of women to not have the aspiration that that's something they can do."

Neely Carlton, a Democrat who in 1995 became the youngest person elected to the Mississippi state Senate at 25, recalls that women often asked her two questions when she was campaigning: Was she a mother, and did she have children? "There's still a strong emphasis on doing the mother role first, especially in the South, but I think that's changing," she says.

Indeed, over the past five years women in Southern states have stepped up efforts to get elected to office.

* In Alabama, a group of citizens in 1992 formed The Alabama Solution, a bipartisan organization that raises money to help identify and support qualified women. In 1994 a separate group of women formed a database that lists women across the state for publicly appointed positions. The women are then groomed for those positions.

Since both organizations started, the number of women running for office has increased substantially, and greater numbers have been appointed to public positions, says Lenora Walker Pate, chair of the Alabama Women's Commission.

* In Virginia, a bipartisan political action committee called Make Women Count helped elect 21 women - a record number - to the state legislature in 1995. The group, founded three years earlier, offers financial support, advice, volunteers, and other contributions to selected candidates. It also helps develop candidates' skills in running for office.

* In Georgia, a new project called "Georgia Women on the Run" is trying to encourage more women to run for office. So far it has attracted hundreds of women to several seminars on how and why they should get involved in politics.

Women who do hold office in the region seem to share a common trait: They often have a steel-magnolia quality and were brought up not to be intimidated by the male majority.

Velvet and steel

"What prepared me most was [a family in which] I was one of 10 girls and one boy," says Anne Northup, a Kentucky Republican who was elected to Congress last year.

"I had a smart mother who filled us with an interest in economics and public policy and a father who was proud of having 10 daughters. We had to play touch football in our house and the loser had to do the dishes, so we were very competitive."

"Intimidation is not anything I've felt," says Representative Carlton of Mississippi. "I come from a family that's always been in politics, and the message I received was I could dream any dream. I have a positive working relationship with men in the [Mississippi] Senate. I have a much more difficult time with men outside the Senate."

Women politicians in the South say more mentoring is needed to help get women elected to office in the region. Many also say the difficulty of raising funds is a hindrance.

Still, when women do decide to run, they win in equal numbers to men, says Ms. Pate of the Alabama Commission on Women.

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