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'Boys club' mentality, culture thwart women candidates in state

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Sunday, April 6, 2008

Although women, including presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have broken the political glass ceiling on a national level, the landmarks have created no "coattails" to draw women to seek legislative office in Pennsylvania.

"I might disagree with Hillary Clinton on a lot of issues, but I think the fact she is on the presidential ticket will interest more women to become involved," said Republican state Sen. Jane Orie, who has represented portions of Allegheny and Butler counties since 2001.

But that won't happen this year, when the state's record of electing few females to the state House and Senate is expected to continue.

Pennsylvania ranks 43rd in the nation in female representation in the Legislature, according to the center. Since 1979, the state's national ranking has been as low as 49th and no higher than 43rd.

Of 441 candidates running for 252 House and Senate seats on April 22, only 66 of them -- about 14.5 percent -- are women.

Those numbers mirror the number of women -- 14.6 percent -- now serving in the state Legislature, 10 of 50 Senate members and just 27 of 203 House members, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Allyson Lowe, director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, said a number of "pressures" unique to women have thwarted their election to public office.

"First, look at the structural issues at play here. In Pennsylvania, those jobs are very desirable, prestigious, well-paying, full-time jobs that culturally work against young newcomers, and particularly women candidates, who also face challenges with maintaining their family lives," Lowe said.

"Unfortunately, men are not similarly challenged. For example, out on the campaign trail many women are routinely asked what will happen if they decide to have children, and that is never a question with men," Lowe said.

Orie, who previously served three terms in the state House, admitted that Pennsylvania's record for electing women "is dismal." However, she believes change is coming.

Now majority whip, Orie is among 10 females serving in the Senate.

"In the past, sometimes women did not have the ability to network or the adequate training (to run a campaign). But now you see a number of programs like the Anne B. Anstine Excellence in Public Service Series, the center at Chatham, the Pittsburgh Women's Executive Council, which all have outreach programs for women informing them of what they need in order to run for office," Orie said.

"These programs are new, but I think you'll see more and more (women) participating down the road because of these organizations.

Orie noted that women who finally get elected feel "some disillusionment because of the establishment, but you've got to be there for the long haul to make progress."

Lowe believes local party organizations must do a better job of recruiting and supporting women candidates.

"These party organizations act as the gatekeepers to many of the positions. Politics is a game of seniority; the most powerful posts are held by people who are there the longest," she said. "Many women are unable to begin their political careers until after their children have grown, whereas the male colleagues have made it a career choice and ascend into these leadership posts."

'Boys club' mentality

State Rep. Lisa Bennington of Morningside, who along with Rep. Chelsa Wagner of Brookline, were the first women from Pittsburgh elected to terms in the state House in 2006, refers to state government in Harrisburg as "an old boys club."

"We do not have one woman currently serving in any House leadership position in the Democratic party in Harrisburg, although we have 11 great women serving here. The Democrats are supposed to be the party of people, but I find it appalling there's not one woman in a Democratic leadership post. But that is the accepted culture," Bennington said.

Bennington has become so frustrated with the political establishment, and lack of productivity in Harrisburg, that she plans to practice law in Pittsburgh rather seek a second term.

"I've grown tired of trying to handle it. The budget is supposed to be passed June 30, but -- oops -- it's not completed until July 17. I'm the type of person who wants to accomplish things, and I've grown tired of it," she said.

Bennington believes that more women would seek legislative office if procedures "became more conducive to family life."

"I believe we don't always have to be in our seats here in Harrisburg. There's this thing called technology available," she said. "We no longer travel to Harrisburg on horses, do we?"

"Taxpayers generously pay for us to have the latest in computers for e-mail and pay for our Blackberries. ... Why can't we use them to vote• There's security to make sure we're the ones actually voting without us having to be in our seats in Harrisburg," Bennington said.

Family responsibilities

Westmoreland County Commissioner Kim Ward, only the second woman to hold that office, agreed that it is difficult to find women willing to devote the time to serve in the Legislature.

Ward, the county's former Republican party chairman, noted that Westmoreland has never elected a female state legislator.

"I think it is so difficult because women -- most women -- still carry day-to-day responsibility for raising families. It makes it extremely difficult for women with raising the money and devoting the time to run a campaign," said Ward, who has three adult sons.

"As much as we want to believe we're beyond the June Cleaver image, we (women) are still generally the day-to-day caretakers of families," she said.

Ward believes returning to a true, "part-time" Legislature would resolve the issue.

"When I ran for office the first time for Hempfield supervisor, I would be home at 5 p.m. cooking dinner. And I would think to myself that my opponent was going to beat me because he was able to still knock on doors because someone was at home cooking dinner for him," Ward said.

"If they always didn't have to leave home and travel to Harrisburg like nine other states that have more than 50 percent female representatives, it would be different. Sadly, we're missing out on a lot of bright, highly qualified people under this system," Ward said.

North Charleroi tax collector Barb Reis, who decided to run against veteran Washington County lawmaker Peter J. Daley, said family life delayed her decision to seek state office. Her two children are now grown.

"Being away from their families, especially women with school-age children, is a factor. Some may think they do not have enough education to run for higher office," Reis said.

"Another deterrent, if a woman does make the commitment and runs, is thinking her chances may be slim in winning an election of this magnitude because she is a woman. I have thought about running for state representative for a long time. I believe, if any women feel as I do, they should run," Reis said.

Reis, 55, is attempting to thwart 57-year-old Daley's bid for a 14th term in the House. She has been endorsed by the bipartisan Pennsylvania Women's Campaign Fund.

Political consultant G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall University in Lancaster, blamed the dearth of female candidates on Pennsylvania's longtime "political culture" exemplified by a "strong two-party system" that historically keeps women at arm's length.

"I think it's pretty tough on women. Look at the people who traditionally run for state offices -- township supervisors and city council members. For the most part, these are men. It starts at the local level. There are few steppingstones for women candidates. So I think it's cultural."

Madonna sees little progress, noting that Allyson Schwartz of Philadelphia is the only congresswoman in Pennsylvania.

Lowe noted that Maryland has a much higher number of women -- 31 percent -- serving in the state Legislature and believes it is because it is in session just 90 days each year.

By the numbers

The states with the highest percentages of women state legislators:

Vermont: 37.8

New Hampshire: 35.6

Washington: 35.4

Colorado: 35

Minnesota: 34.8

Hawaii: 32.9

Arizona: 32.2

Maryland: 31.4

Maine: 31.2

Oregon: 31.1

The states with the lowest percentages of women state legislators:

South Carolina: 8.8

Oklahoma: 12.8

Alabama: 12.9

Kentucky: 13

West Virginia: 14.2

Mississippi: 14.4

Pennsylvania: 14.6

Louisiana: 14.6

Virginia: 16.4

Tennessee: 16.7

Ohio: 16.7

Source: Center for American Women and Politics



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