‘You’ve Come a Long Way’

By: - August 6, 2001 12:00 am

When she was 16 and quit school to help out on the family farm, Ruth Ann Minner never dreamed she would one day be the first woman elected to Delaware’s highest office.

“I was one of those farm girls, very happy on the farm. I thought I’d always continue to remain in farming and be a happy homemaker,” says Gov. Minner, a Democrat. But then Minner’s husband died leaving her with three boys to raise at age 32.

“When my first husband passed away very suddenly, very young, it sort of changed my whole life,” she told Stateline.org.

Minner went back to high school, attended college, married again and started a towing business before running for the state legislature. After laboring 26 years in the legislative trenches, she became lieutenant governor under Tom Carper, and then earned the keys to the Governor’s mansion in 2000.

This has been a record year for women politicians. Five of the nation’s governors are women, the highest percentage in American history and at least 23 female gubernatorial hopefuls are eyeing the 37 gubernatorial seats up for grabs in November 2002. In a number of states, for the first time, female Republicans and Democrats could be squaring off against each other in a bid for executive office.

“The number of women running for governor means we may have a chance to look beyond gender and look at the agendas of these women,” says Marie Wilson, President of the White House Project, an organization that encourages female leadership. She says that in the past, their hairdos, their outfits and their husbands have upstaged female candidates’ agendas.

The timing couldn’t be better, political experts say, because the electorate is softening to the idea of women leaders at the same time that issues, such as education and health care, rank high in voters’ minds. These are issues voters believe women can tackle and manage well.

“This is the time for women because the issues women have more credibility on, which are education and how we care for young and old, are paramount,” Wilson said.

Peter Wiley, a consultant with the National Governors Association (NGA) , is optimistic that women candidates will do well next year. “In 20 or 40 years we should be close to parity. We may see a raft of women governors in the 2002 elections. ”

In addition to Delaware, Montana is represented by the first female governor in its history. Republican Judy Martz, a former Olympic ice skater, had little trouble convincing Montana voters in 2000 to promote her from lieutenant governor to chief executive.

New Hampshire voters re-elected Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, who was also the state’s first woman governor, and Arizona’s Jane Dee Hull, a Republican, is the second woman to hold down the top office in her state.

Massachusetts gave its lieutenant governor’s slot to Republican Jane Swift last year. Her unexpected rise to the governor’s seat came in April when Gov. Paul Cellucci was tapped by President Bush to serve as U.S. ambassador to Canada.

Swift’s ascension to the governor’s chair was not the first time that women had stepped in to fill the slots abruptly vacated by departing chief executives. In 1925, for example, Nellie Tayloe Ross, a Wyoming Democrat was nominated to finish her husband’s term when he died. Sixteen days later, Miriam Ferguson became governor in Texas after her husband, James, was impeached. “These women were actually elected to take the place of husbands so they were surrogates. They were mostly in Western states like Wyoming and Texas. These were tough women who worked side by side with their husbands on the frontier – they didn’t have to prove they were tough,” said Wilson.

Things haven’t changed much since the frontier days, according to Gov. Minner. “People expect us to be emotional about some of the issues (and) everybody expects us to hesitate when we are making decisions. We have to prove ourselves, that we are decision makers and we make the right decisions,” she says.

There have been a total of 19 women governors, but it wasn’t until 1975 that a woman was elected in her own right. That woman was Ella Grasso, a Connecticut Democrat. She was the fourth woman elected governor in U.S. history and a mighty tough lady, according to University of North Carolina political science professor Thad Beyle.

“She was no different than a lot of the other politicians I’ve met in governor’s circles, except that she was a woman. I remember her leaning back in her chair and putting her feet on the desk – she had sneakers on -she let you know that just because she was a woman it made no difference,” said Beyle.

Celinda Lake, a Democratic political strategist and co-author of the report on voter’s perceptions of women politicians entitled “Keys to Government,” says that women have to show they can go toe-to-toe with the boys.

“Voters think of state legislatures as still being primarily male dominated and very political, so they tend to think of them as not responding well to women. Having said that voters don’t particularly have a positive view of state legislatures, they just think of them as unruly political bodies,” Lake says.

Gov. Minner, however, might take issue with that statement given her long experience in the legislature and how lawmakers have responded to her leadership.

“I thought it would be a little easier for me, but I had no idea that we would have such a wonderful year. We had some trials, don’t get me wrong. But the thing was, they came to me and we sat down and talked about it…and we solved the problem,” she says.

Jane Swift hasn’t been as lucky with her first legislative session. Swift was the first governor to give birth in office. But she didn’t let her labor pains stop her from governing via speakerphone from her hospital bed. Still, some lawmakers thought that Swift should have turned over responsibility to someone else.

“Everyone saw how Swift was responded to. It was not very respectful,” Wilson says.

In contrast, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Almond had an easier time with lawmakers when cancer surgery kept him out of state for six days and out of his office for five weeks. Yet no one called for Almond to relinquish his authority.

The NGA’s Wiley rejects the notion that the “old boy network” is still the norm. He says parties want good candidates who they think will raise money and win seats, regardless of gender.

“It is very much the meritocracy of politics and the meritocracy of politics is: who can win,” Wiley says.

With all things being equal then, women should have a good shot at picking up more offices in the next election cycle. Experts say that by the time a candidate gets to the executive level, there is little or no difference between the agendas of men and women or their style of governing. What is different is the voters perceptions of male and female leadership.

“Women governors usually have a more open process and involve more people in the solutions. Most have come up through the legislature and have learned to amass power by opening up the process and making it more transparent,” Wilson says.

As public disenchantment with partisanship grows, female governors may gain even more of an edge. Gov. Minner thinks the bipartisan work in her state has helped her image. “The public sees us working together and it makes a difference. We aren’t fighting to gain anything for ourselves, but working together to move the state forward,” she said.

Still, voters are more comfortable with male candidates from the private sector who promote themselves as government outsiders. But for women to be viewed as an outsider with no government experience can be the recipe for a losing campaign.

“Voters are more comfortable with a woman if she has been an attorney general, lieutenant governor, treasurer or mayor of a major city because they want her to have executive experience. She should have an economic background. Someone with a track record of being in touch with her state,” says Wilson.

Lake agrees and says a lack of financial experience could harm candidates in 2002 if the economic slump continues. “The economy is a big piece of the puzzle right now with the economy down in every state,” she warns.

Wiley believes, however, that voter concerns about female leadership abilities will fade over time.

“That glass ceiling is vanishing as more young women come into political life,” Wiley says. “For some, becoming governor is the dream of dreams. I think we have more women dreaming that dream today.”

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