Gender equality elusive in Congress as fewer women run for office
Women make up 51 percent of the nation’s population, but just 19 percent of its chief deliberative body.
Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper, a former member of Congress, thinks the political system can do better.
“Anytime our elected leaders look more like the population, we’re better off,” said Dahlkemper, a Democrat who lost her 3rd District seat in 2010 to Republican Rep. Mike Kelly of Butler. “We just make our country better by having diversity that’s more representative.”
The 114th Congress includes a record 104 women, but none from Pennsylvania. The commonwealth is the most populous among 13 states without a woman in its delegation. Delaware, Mississippi and Vermont have not elected a woman to either chamber.
A body of social science shows that when women run for office, they win at the same rate as men, and they can raise campaign money just as well. But they don’t run for office at the same rates, leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy, said Jennifer Lawless, political science professor at American University.
“Until we have more women in politics, it becomes very difficult to chip away at these perceptions that suggest women can’t get elected,” Lawless said.
A study she co-authored in March 2013 found that 20 percent of college-age men had thought “many times” about someday running for office, compared with 10 percent of college-aged women.
“Women and men who look equally qualified, and are on paper equally qualified, don’t self-assess the same way,” Lawless said. “Women are far more likely to doubt their qualifications.”
Women in politics around the world must deal with challenges with social perceptions — at least until they begin governing, said Sandra Pepera, director of the National Democratic Institute’s Gender, Women and Democracy Program.
“They’re more likely to be inclusive of other communities; they’re more likely to be focused on social issues,” Pepera said. “Women’s style, in general, is more collaborative and consensus-building.”
Dana Brown, executive director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women in Politics at Chatham University, said political parties can groom female candidates through programs such as the Anne B. Anstine Excellence in Public Service Series for Republican women in Pennsylvania.
“When we do have more women involved in elected office, we do see tangible benefits,” Brown said, citing government transparency and bipartisanship.
Yet the incumbency advantage is a tough barrier to break through for traditionally underrepresented groups, Lawless said. Women’s next real opportunity for significant gains is likely 2022, when census-based legislative redistricting could present more open seats, she said.
Dahlkemper, who was elected in 2008 in her first bid for public office, was shocked to learn she was just the seventh woman to represent Pennsylvania. She said increasing numbers of women running for president, Congress and governorships could inspire more bids.
“We don’t run as much for career,” she said. “Women tend to jump in when they’re really passionate about something.”
Montgomery County Democrat Allyson Schwartz was the only woman from Pennsylvania in the last Congress. She ran for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination instead of re-election but lost to Gov.-elect Tom Wolf.
Six female challengers who ran in Pennsylvania House races during the midterms lost. But nationally, the cycle produced some notable firsts.
Six Republican women are in the U.S. Senate, an all-time high, including Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia. Republican Sen. Joni Ernst became Iowa’s first woman in Congress and the Senate’s first female military veteran. Rep. Mia Love of Utah became the first black female Republican in Congress.
Democrats traditionally elect more women, experts say, and about a third of the members of the new House Democratic Caucus are women, with 65 women among 188 members.
“Change is slow, but change does happen,” said Brown of Chatham.
Former U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart, a Republican from Bradford Woods, served from 2001 through 2007 after 10 years in the state Senate. She took early advice from the late state Sen. Jeanette Reibman, a Democrat from eastern Pennsylvania.
“Your style will be a little different, your message will be a little different, and that will be extremely valuable,” Hart said. “That’s what I subscribed to when I served.”
Hart, an attorney in private practice, encourages women to get involved in politics, noting that the job can be enriching.
“It’s not as much of a sacrifice as they think, if they have the philosophy the United States government is something we’re all responsible for,” she said.
Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.