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It was 1971. Louise Slaughter, a mother of three with a master's degree in public health, wanted to serve in the Monroe County Legislature.

Gender, she recalled, was the issue in that first campaign.

“The question most asked of me was: What would happen to my three children?” recalled Slaughter, now in her 26th year in Congress. “I told everybody, 'I'm sure they'll be perfectly fine one night every three weeks at home with their father.' ”

When she was later sworn in to Congress in 1987 for the first time, Slaughter was one of just 25 women – two in the Senate and 23 in the House. Today, there are 101, and there are more women in the U.S. Senate than ever.

But it's not enough.

Women in Washington made headlines last week because of their sheer numbers. The Democrats posed together on the steps of Congress. The senators were interviewed by Diane Sawyer. Some suggested more women in Congress would mean less gridlock.

It was a moment worth noting, but the numbers are still dismally small. Women still make up less than 20 percent of the 535 people in Congress.

That does not reflect the country.

It's embarrassing how far down the United States is on the Inter-Parliamentary Union's list of women in national legislatures. We were tied at No. 82 with Morocco and Venezuela last year.

So why don't more women run for political office – especially at the higher levels of government?

“Running for office is a hard thing to do. You're really putting yourself out there in terms of opening yourself up for criticism and so on, and I think a lot of women shy away from that,” said Assemblywoman Jane Corwin. “My experience is that women seek compromise, and women want to make everybody happy, and sometimes, that's a difficult thing to do as an elected official.”

For some women, simply asking for support can be difficult. Others worry about the impact on their families. Some want to work in the background.

The good news is, more people are thinking about how to get women to run.

In Buffalo, two women last year founded WomenElect with the goal of helping women build the skills they need. The six-month leadership development program focuses on helping women understand the process with the hope that they will someday choose to step out onto the political stage.

“They need to really believe that they can make a change and that they want to be able to make a change in their community to be able to go through what is a pretty tough process, a brutal process,” said Diana Cihak, founder and program director.

Slaughter, now a ranking member of the House Rules Committee, believes it's easier now for women to run and to make a difference in the world.

Back on that early campaign trail, Slaughter remembers asking an older gentleman for his vote.

“I said, 'Do you think you could support a woman this year?' ” Slaughter recalled. “And he said, 'Sure, honey, I've been doing it for 40.' So I never asked that question again.”

Women such as Slaughter long ago cruised past those outdated attitudes. It's time for new generations to step up.



email: djgee@buffnews.com