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HELENA - The number of women serving in state legislatures across the country has increased fourfold since 1971, but in Montana, women have little more than doubled their numbers since 1975, statistics show.

Women will hold seven of 50 seats in the Montana Senate during the 2005 Legislature, and 29 in the House. Overall, women will hold 36 seats, or 24 percent, of the 150 seats in the 2005 Legislature, according to statistics compiled by Craig Wilson, professor of political science at Montana State University-Billings.

Nationally, women hold 22 percent of state legislature seats, research by the Center for American Women and Politics shows.

"Aren't we 50 percent of the population?" asked Rep.-elect Mary Caferro, D-Helena. "Shouldn't we be 50 percent of the Legislature?"

The majority of women - 27 of the 36 elected to the 2005 Montana Legislature - are Democrats, and nine are Republicans. Wilson attributes the overall gender gap in the Legislature to the conventional social pressures women face every day.

"We're in the 21st century, but these traditional roles appear to have some impact on who runs for office," Wilson said. "I've yet to hear a male legislator say he can't run for office because he has to raise his family."

Some women who are in the 2005 Legislature agree with Wilson's assessment.

Caferro said women, more so than men, face special challenges in running for and working in the Legislature. Caferro herself has overcome some barriers on her way to the statehouse. As a single mother of four, she knows what it's like to balance two jobs, college and the demands of a household.

"A number of women still work full time and have a good share of the responsibilities of the family," Caferro said, adding that such responsibility might make women think twice or not at all about running for political office.

Rep. Diane Rice, R-Harrison, was just elected to her third term in the House. She said the women in the Legislature tend to have to balance more responsibility than their male counterparts. During the four-month session, Rice makes the 90-mile trip back to her family ranch every weekend so she can continue working the books of the cattle, grain and hay business.

Rice shared housing with Rep. Debbie Barrett, R-Dillon, last session. The fact that many male legislators brought their wives with them to Helena for the session didn't escape these two.

"We used to joke we needed a wife," Rice said. "The men weren't worrying about laundry."

Rice also pointed out that many of the women in the Legislature are older and tend to have grown children. She agrees that the dual responsibilities of motherhood and work can prohibit some younger women from running for office. Rice's own children are grown.

"Just looking at the age bracket of the women who do serve, it probably has to do with having younger children," Rice said. "Younger women are probably not able to break away for four months."

The director for the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University said the legislative environment is not very encouraging to women. Debbie Walsh said more programs need to be held to encourage women, especially young women, to enter the fray. Nationally, women under the age of 36 represent a mere 12 percent of all lawmakers, she said.

"There is still, unfortunately, this double standard," Walsh said. "It's just harder for women."

Despite women's minority status in the Legislature, Rice said the women in the Montana statehouse are just as powerful and as respected as their male counterparts.

"I really don't believe there's any distinction between the men and the women as far as the work we do there," Rice said.

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