See Jane Stop Running

By: - June 18, 2004 12:00 am

You may have come a long way, baby, but fewer women of late are finding their way to the statehouse.

Even though eight U.S. governors are women — more than at any time in history — the number of female candidates in the pipeline for the highest state office is stagnating.

In state legislatures, the number of female lawmakers has leveled off, after a steady upward climb that began when women first entered state office in the 1920s and built steam with the women’s movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, according to research by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Women make up 22.4 percent of state legislatures this year, a fivefold increase since 1971. Women hold 412, or 20.9 percent, of all state senate seats and 1,249, or 23 percent, of all state house seats. But there are nine fewer women serving in state legislatures this year than in 1999. The percentage of women serving has held steady for the past five years.

As the growth rate among women entering state lawmaking goes down, interest is up in new ways to attract women to state politics. Many women say they need to be asked to run before they consider a political career path, so state-based training programs are trying to encourage women to enter state politics.

South Carolina has the distinction of electing the lowest percentage of women to its Statehouse, just 9 percent, while Washington State boasts a high of 37 percent, according to the Rutgers Center.

More than 30 percent of all legislators are women in California, Colorado, Maryland, Oregon and Vermont.

Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Oklahoma have low representation of women, each under 12 percent. Florida is the only southern state ranking in the top 20 states, with 25 percent women, according to Rutgers’ research.

Fewer women are running for office partly because of “the invitation factor, ” said Marie Wilson, president of the White House Project, an organization that promotes female leadership in government with an eye toward one day placing a woman in the White House.

Patrice Arent, (D) one of five women serving in the 29-member Utah Senate, didn’t seek office until other people suggested it to her. “I was talked into running for the Utah Legislature. Some of my friends approached me,” Arent said.

She isn’t alone. Thirty-seven percent of women, compared with 18 percent of men, never thought of running until somebody asked them, according to research by professors Gary Moncrief of Boise State University and Peverill Squire of the University of Iowa, authors of the 2001 book, “Who Runs For the Legislature?”

Arent, who represents an area south of Salt Lake City, said,”Legislatures should reflect the population. Women need to see other women running and being successful. I certainly hope we have more women running in the future, particularly for the big offices.”

Among potential candidates, significantly more men than women said they saw themselves as qualified to seek office, according to research published in April by Richard Fox of Union College and Jennifer Lawless of Brown University.

“I do wish women would be a little less reticent. It’s not a dance. You don’t have to wait to be asked,” said Debbie Walsh, director of Rutgers’ Center.

Walsh noted a direct relationship between the percentages of women serving in the legislature and the number of women who attain leadership positions such as speaker or whip. Women held a majority of leadership positions last year in Washington, Oregon and Colorado — where the ratio of women is higher — while 25 states had no women serving in leadership positions.

The South, where the political culture is more conservative than the rest of the country, has been less likely to see women in leadership positions, Walsh said. States with more “closed systems”, where it is harder for newcomers to break in and bypass party leaders’ decisions about who will run for office, make it especially hard for women to enter the political arena, Walsh said.

The future of women in state government rests partly on efforts to recruit women to run, so the Rutgers Center and several other groups are sponsoring programs to persuade women to enter politics and train them about campaigning, Walsh said. One of the Center’s programs, Ready to Run, teaches New Jersey women to master campaign tactics.

Other state-based training programs trying to encourage women to enter state politics exist in California, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. The Lugar Series, for example, aims to increase the number of Hoosier Republican women in elected office. Democratic Party programs include the Illinois Women’s Institute for Leadership.

“It’s the same idea of demystifying the process and raising the comfort level so women feel they can navigate through the system. If we don’t encourage more women to run, the pipeline will be drying up. If we stop having women running for the legislature, we’re going to see fewer women in Congress and fewer women governors,” Walsh said.

Of the 74 women who now serve in the U.S. Congress, 37 were state lawmakers. Half of all female governors served as state legislators, Walsh said.

In New York City, a program is to kick off June 18 called “Vote, Run, Lead” to teach young women about polling, voter registration, and why it matters that women are not entering the political process at the same rate as before. The White House Project is spearheading the training session to be held in The New York Times’ auditorium.

Related state-level programs to turn women into office-seekers will take place this summer in Colorado, Georgia, Maine, Minnesota and Washington, sponsored by the Project and a coalition of women’s colleges.

“It’s hard to understand how impenetrable politics sometimes feels for women,” the Project’s Wilson said.

Higher concentrations of women are found in states with part-time or volunteer legislatures because women are willing to take jobs that don’t pay, said Martha Harris, president of the Pennsylvania Women’s Campaign Fund, which provides financial and technical assistance to pro-choice women candidates of both parties.

In Pennsylvania’s full-time Legislature last year, only 13.8 percent of state lawmakers were women.

“Politics is a big-money sport in Pennsylvania,” Harris said. “Wherever there’s money and power associated, women are often excluded, and that’s true not just in our state.”

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