Women make up Pa.'s political minority, say gender isn't issue

Tom Fontaine
| Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Women make up about half of the population but remain grossly under-represented in key political offices that shape policy and render legal decisions at the federal, state and local levels, said politicians and political experts.

“It's been a slow climb here,” said Dana Brown, executive director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University, which is hosting a campaign-training seminar for women in Shadyside on Saturday and another one in Philadelphia next month.

Last year's seminar in Pittsburgh drew about 80 women.

Women hold one of Pennsylvania's 18 congressional seats and 17 percent of the seats in the state Legislature. One of the state's seven Supreme Court justices and nine of its 60 Common Pleas president judges are women.

About 38 percent of countywide offices in the 10-county area surrounding Pittsburgh are held by women.

A woman has never represented Pennsylvania as a U.S. senator or governor. Democrat Kathleen Kane in 2012 became the first woman elected state attorney general.

Brown said she thinks 2014 could be a ground-breaking year for Pennsylvania women in politics, noting three are running for governor on the Democratic ticket and at least three of the state's congressional races could be in play for women, including one featuring New Kensington's Erin McClelland in the newly constituted 12th District that includes Beaver County and parts of Allegheny, Cambria, Lawrence, Somerset and Washington counties.

Women holding and seeking key political offices recognize the importance of their being under-represented in politics and want more women to get involved, but some insist gender isn't an issue in serving in elected positions.

“When I'm working on legislation or assisting constituents, the fact that I'm a woman doesn't pop into my head,” said second-term state Sen. Kim L. Ward, R-Hempfield, Western Pennsylvania's only female state senator.

“One reason we might not see more women running is that, no matter how liberated we say we are, in the end we're still the main caretakers of our children and we need to be with our children,” said Ward, who chairs the Community, Economic and Recreational Development Committee.

Ward, 57, said that early in her tenure she typically spent six days a week tending to legislative duties and her Sundays cleaning her family's home, doing laundry and cooking meals for her family for the coming week.

“I thought to myself, ‘I wonder if John Pippy's doing this?' ” Ward joked, referring to her former Republican colleague in the state senate who now heads the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance.

“Finding that work-life balance is a huge challenge,” said state Rep. Erin Molchany, D-Mt. Washington, one of three women from the Pittsburgh region serving in the state House, where 37 of 202 members are women.

Molchany, 36, said she views her role as a woman in state government as critical.

“I feel a certain responsibility as a woman legislator. It changes the conversation when you have diversity in any body. When it's more reflective of the population it serves, you have a better cross-section of legislation,” said Molchany, an active member of the bipartisan, bicameral Women's Health Caucus who said she actively works to recruit other women to serve in Harrisburg with the blessing of Democratic leaders in the House.

State Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, said the seven women in his chamber “bring different perspectives to issues, and that's a very positive thing. We shouldn't always be looking through the lens of a man.”

“I do take seriously my role as one of the few women in elected office in Pennsylvania,” said fifth-term U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Montgomery County. “But at the end of the day, I think what most people want is a different type of leadership from what they've been getting. If it's a man or a woman, I don't think most people care.” Schwartz, 65, is a former state senator who is running for governor and formerly ran for U.S. Senate.

Gubernatorial candidate Jo Ellen Litz, 63, a Democrat and a Lebanon County commissioner, said she was stunned when someone asked her this question after she announced her candidacy: “Aren't there enough women in the race?”

“I said, ‘Really, are you serious?' ”

Former state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Katie McGinty, 50, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate who worked in the Clinton administration, said someone asked her on the campaign trail whether she was “tough enough” to be governor.

“That was humorous to me,” said McGinty of Chester County. “I've worked to pass some major pieces of legislation, but the real test for me was being the ninth of 10 kids. Mashed potatoes never made it around the table twice. I've always fought for things, so I think I'm plenty tough enough.”

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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