As part of a prospective case-control study of newly diagnosed rheumatoid arthritis (RA) in women, we identified all cases of probable, definite, or classic RA diagnosed in 1987-1989 in 18-64-year-old women who were members of a health maintenance organization based in the Seattle, Washington area. Using both the 1958 and the 1987 American Rheumatism Association criteria for the diagnosis of RA and enrollment data from the health maintenance organization, we calculated the incidence by age and diagnostic class. Rates of RA incidence in women increased steadily with age. The incidence of probable, definite, or classic RA ranged from 13.1 per 100,000 person-years at risk for 18-29-year-old women to 82.1 per 100,000 person-years for 60-64-year-old women. The overall incidence rate, age-adjusted to the 1980 US female population, was 27.9/100,000 person-years. The overall incidence rate for definite/classic RA, age-adjusted to the 1980 US female population, was 23.9 per 100,000 person-years. When compared with adjusted rates of incidence of definite RA in Rochester, Minnesota, in 1950-1974, the incidence rates we found were 44.7% lower. Methodologic differences, changes in diagnostic criteria, and a declining incidence of RA among women over time may all be partial explanations for these results. The possible effects of reproductive factors, including oral contraceptives use, are discussed.