Nine women governors — a record — now hold office. But bruising terms, party politics and tough, well-funded competition in this fall's elections combine to make holding onto that high-point a challenge.
For women politicians and those who strive to see women equally represented in state capitols, Congress and the White House, this year's struggle underscores how far the nation's political culture has moved in the past few decades — and how far it has to go.
"This has changed so dramatically and so quickly," said Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (search), a Democrat and the state's second woman governor. "It opens doors, not only for future generations, but also it begins to change the mindset of the American electorate."
Besides her state, women now govern Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Louisiana, Michigan, Montana and Utah.
Two Republican governors in the West are on their way out — Judy Martz (search) of Montana chose not to run after a rocky first term, while Olene Walker (search) of Utah, a former lieutenant governor who took office when her predecessor joined the Bush administration, wasn't nominated by fellow Republicans.
Two Democrats are making strong bids elsewhere: Christine Gregoire (search) of Washington state, the state attorney general seeking an open seat; and Claire McCaskill (search) of Missouri, who unseated one-term Democratic Gov. Bob Holden (search) in the primary. Polls show both women are very competitive.
In Delaware, Democrat Ruth Ann Minner has led in recent polls in her race for a second term.
Some argue that electing women to office brings important life experiences and perspectives otherwise missing from the political world. That argument aside, others say, women should be represented as equally as their 50.1 percent of the population.
"We have the obligation to look at the full spectrum," said Walker in Utah, who made a name for herself on housing and education but rejects "categorizing" issues. "Men need to be as involved in education as women."
Some activists focus on the grass roots, encouraging women to run for school board, city council, state legislature. Many look higher, rueful that there hasn't been a woman on a major-party presidential ticket since Democrat Geraldine Ferraro as vice president in 1984.
The success of women as governors offers hope, possibly even more than the 74 women among the 535 members of Congress, including a record 14 in the Senate.
"It's breaking a boundary and a barrier that's important for women's general progress in politics," said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
"We've gotten comfortable with women in legislatures," an arena of compromise and negotiation like Congress, Walsh said. "That's our stereotype of women, that they work well with others. Now we've got women as chief executives, where the buck stops" — akin to the presidency, she said.
Both of the women bidding to become governors bring criminal justice experience that builds their credentials for toughness. McCaskill served as a county prosecutor, while Gregoire made a name for herself as a state attorney general and a leader of the landmark 1990s tobacco settlement negotiations.
It was only 1975 when the nation first saw a woman elected governor (Connecticut's Ella Grasso) in her own right, without following a husband. Republican M. Jodi Rell became that state's second woman governor in July after John Rowland resigned amid a federal corruption investigation and threats of impeachment.
It was just two years ago that the nation hit a record when six women were in governors' offices.
Since then, the rise to nine has brought only scant attention, whether because of the nation's attention to global rather than domestic politics or just a reflection of how accepted it has become for women to move up.
But the high-profile successes mask other worries. Fewer women are entering politics, experts say, shown by a recent drop in percentage of women in state legislatures and in statewide office.
"It's not a battle that can't be won, but it's like a mountain and the valley," said Sandi Huddleston, who seeks to encourage Republican women to get involved with Indiana's Richard G. Lugar Excellence in Public Service Series. It's one of many organizations of all political persuasions working to get more women involved in government. "We may be on the upswing," she said.
Increasingly negative campaigns take a toll, too. Sebelius — whose father served as Ohio's governor — said she's knows firsthand how public life has gotten rougher.
"While my father was under the spotlight, that spotlight wasn't focused on my siblings and me," she said. "I've talked to a number of women, trying to convince them to run for public office. That aspect is so appalling to them that they're not willing to put their kids in that position."
The hope, said Rell in Connecticut, is that as more women get involved, they can help change the tone.
"It's part of the game of politics," Rell said. "Women will help to change that game, in a better format, I hope, down the road."
Despite the obstacles, they and others said having woman as governors can't help but inspire others.
"That's going to have a tremendous impact on young women and girls who are now growing up," said Llenda Jackson-Leslie, president of the National Women's Political Caucus, a pro-choice, nonpartisan group. "It's going to seem entirely possible to handle the biggest job in the state. And from there to the White House. It's an absolute natural."