WHEN LYNNE Abraham became district attorney in 1991, her ascent to one of the city's highest offices was hailed as a breakthrough for women in local politics - often viewed as an exclusive old-boys network.

But almost 20 years later, the "No Girls Allowed" sign still seems firmly in place in both the city and state.

Consider this: Philadelphia has had just one viable woman mayoral candidate, and she didn't survive the primary. Pennsylvania is ranked 46th for the percentage of women in the state Legislature - only Mississippi, Alabama, Oklahoma and South Carolina are worse. The state has never had a woman governor or a woman U.S. senator.

And, two weeks ago, six men ran in primary elections to replace Abraham.

"It's a tough business," Abraham said, when asked about the challenges facing women running for office. "This is not a tea party."

Although women make up 53 percent of the city's population, women often take a back seat in the world of local politics.

Reasons cited by experts for the dearth of women in elected office include the city and state's entrenched political machinery, which often favors male candidates and protects male incumbents; limited efforts to actively recruit women candidates, and that there are few high-ranking female elected officials to help advance others.

"We have a longer tradition of men being the politicians. It's been harder for women to break through," said U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, the state's highest-ranking woman elected official, representing Northeast Philadelphia and parts of Montgomery County. "Men have dominated in political circles in Pennsylvania politics for so long, and people stay in their elected positions for so long."

There is some estrogen in the local political lineup in addition to Schwartz. Seven of Philly's 17 City Council members are women. And this year, for the first time, two of the state's U.S. representatives are women.

But local participation still pales in comparison to that in other cities and states. Atlanta and Baltimore have women mayors. Michigan, Alaska and Connecticut are among the states with female governors. More than 35 percent of the state legislators in Colorado, Vermont and New Hampshire are female.

Allyson Lowe, director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy at Chatham University, in Pittsburgh, said that Pennsylvania's political makeup most closely mirrors a conservative Southern state.

"The way the old-boys network works, they cultivate people who are like themselves," Lowe said.

Lowe also noted that women are more likely to run if recruited - but that with mostly men in power, that's not always going to happen.

"Men tend to run for office when they see an opportunity," Lowe said. "Women tend to wait to be asked. Who would do the asking? Mostly men in office."

And, because the power structure is largely male, it can be difficult for women to advance once they achieve office.

"When you're outnumbered 90-10, and the Democrats aren't exactly filled with progressive thinkers, how do you advance women within that hierarchy?" asked Bennington, 33, who works at the Pittsburgh law firm Pollock Begg Komar Glasser LLC.

Another problem is that many women choose not to run for office when they have young children, waiting until later in life. That often means men get earlier starts in politics and achieve higher offices.

"The average woman in the legislature started later, and it is a problem with seniority," said state Rep. Babette Josephs, whose district takes in parts of Center City and Grays Ferry. Josephs is the most senior woman in the Legislature with 25 years in the state House of Representatives.

Still, increasing the number of women in elected office does make a difference in the kind of issues addressed and services provided by government, Lowe said.

"When you increase the number of women in government, you broaden the range of issues and the range of solutions," Lowe said. "When you bring more people to the table you have more perspective."

There are efforts underway to change the status quo. Schwartz and Josephs said that they try to mentor women getting into politics. So does state Rep. Cherelle Parker, who represents parts of Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill. Parker said that she regularly brings high-school students into her office to show them how governing works.

"For me, I've had the benefit of great mentorship," Parker said. "We need to do more of that with women, young women, get them involved early on."

Some thought an even more organized pro-woman effort might help. Happy Fernandez, a former city councilwoman who ran in the Democratic mayoral primary in 1999, said that she'd love to see a local version of Emily's List - a national group dedicated to raising money for the campaigns of pro-choice Democratic women.

"I think what would be great, if there was someone in the city . . . who wanted to make it her business to build a political network that would be the base for a number of women," said Fernandez, president of Moore College of Art and Design.

U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, local Democratic Party chairman, said that he's not holding women back.

"I think they're delightful in office," Brady said of female elected officials. "They're great legislators. I never did, never will discourage them."

Lowe noted that there are more resources available to women candidates today than 20 years ago - like candidate-training programs and fundraising support. And she stressed that when women do run, they can be just as successful at winning office as men.

"When women run, women can win," Lowe said.

"Women do not have a higher loss rate than men." *