Feminist groups are moving to assure that the New York Senate seat that Hillary Clinton will soon vacate goes to a woman — and they have chosen their candidate: Democratic Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney.

Clinton, the second-term senator who has been selected to serve as Secretary of State in President-elect Barack Obama’s administration, is preparing to leave a high-profile, Democratic-leaning seat that has attracted plenty of interest from aspiring New York state pols.

New York Governor David Paterson, a Democrat who inherited his position when former Governor Eliot Spitzer quit, will select Clinton’s replacement.

Whoever Paterson names is likely to become a frontrunner to retain the seat in a 2010 special election.

In a Senate that is still a long way from gender equity — only 16 of 100 members are women — the New York seat is one that groups women’s rights groups do not want to lose.

So they are urging Paterson to tap Maloney, a former New York City Council member who has served for the better part of two decades in the House. On Thursday, both the National Organization for Women (NOW) Political Action Committee and the Feminist Majority Political Action Committee endorsed the liberal Democrat from Manhattan who currently chairs the Joint Economic Committee of the House and Senate and the House Financial Services Committee’s Financial Institutions Subcommittee.

“I have worked with many legislators over the course of several decades. Congresswoman Maloney gets things done whether in the majority or the minority,” says Feminist Majority President Eleanor Smeal, a former NOW president. “She is an effective legislator who never takes no for an answer when it comes to fighting for women of the world or the citizens of New York.”

“Senator Hillary Clinton leaves big shoes to fill, and Carolyn Maloney has what it takes. She knows how to tackle big issues and is willing to take on entrenched interests,” says current NOW president Kim Gandy. “She is a tireless advocate for her constituents, and one of the most effective legislators in the House.”

Smeal and Gandy argue that, in addition to being able to hit the ground running in a Senate that will be dealing a great deal with the financial and economic policy issues that she has made her speciality, Maloney will be an able advocate for women in the U.S. and abroad. Solidly pro-choice and a longtime proponent of initiatives to aid women and children, Maloney made a name in the House as an early and outspoken champion of improving the condition of women in Afghanistan.

Maloney’s is one of many names that have been floated for the seat. Bill Clinton’s name was on the list briefly, butthe former president says he’s not looking for a job. Spitzer’s name has been mentioned, although mainly in jest.

A more serious contender is Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who served as the Clinton administration’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development and who leads in some polls of New York Democrats who were asked who they favored for the seat. Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown has been mentioned, and would be the state’s first African-American senator if selected.

Various House members are prospects, some of them senior figures (such as Manhattan’s Jerry Nadler, a Judiciary Committee stalwart with a strong progressive record), others relative newcomers (such as Kirsten Gillibrand, from the Albany area.)

Another woman whose name has shown up on some lists of prospective senators is Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of slain President John F. Kennedy who stepped into the political limelight early in 2008 to rally support for Obama when he was fighting Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Caroline Kennedy’s cousin, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., has also been talked about as a prospect. But the environmentalist son of Robert F. Kennedy, who once held the New York Senate seat, has reportedly told Paterson he is not interested in being appointed to the position.

Paterson won’t make his selection until after Clinton formally quits her seat sometime next month. He says, “I think I can take time and make the right decision. One thing that any business leader, any government official or any bride or groom ever learned is it never hurts to take a little more time in the selection process.”

Thursday’s move by NOW-PAC and FM-PAC offers a reminder, however, that Paterson will be heavily lobbied in coming weeks — not merely by groups and individuals backing individual contenders but also by those who are concerned about keeping as much diversity as possible in the Senate.