Pennsylvania lags in women officeholders

Posted: March 01, 2011

On this, the first day of Women's History Month, it is useful to remember a history lesson of the 2010 elections: The days when a woman had to talk tough and don a boxy pantsuit to be taken seriously at the polls are no more.

Following Hillary Rodham Clinton's 2008 primary run and Sarah Palin's continued omnipresence, dozens of women emerged last year as major contenders for high office, touting their femininity as much as their faculties.

They sought Senate seats in competitive races, from Delaware's gaffe-plagued Christine O'Donnell to Nevada's hard-right Sharon Angle. Silicon Valley executives Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina dominated the political talk of California, while in other states, women broke glass ceilings in governors' mansions, including New Mexico's - where both parties nominated female candidates.

But not in Pennsylvania.

"We are so far behind," said Mary Ellen Balchunis-Harris, a political scientist at La Salle University. "There's a real glass ceiling in Pennsylvania politics for women. And it's only been lately that we're seeing that breaking a little."

The Center for Women and American Politics at Rutgers University (in New Jersey, which elected a female governor, Christie Whitman, in the 1990s) ranks Pennsylvania 42d of 50 states for percentage of female officeholders.

The Keystone State has yet to elect a female governor, attorney general, or U.S. senator. A woman has never occupied the office on the second floor of Philadelphia City Hall. And of all the women in Congress, Pennsylvania claims but one: Allyson Y. Schwartz (D, Montgomery).

Even South Carolina - dead last in Rutgers' rankings - is now led by Gov. Nikki Haley, a 39-year-old swept into office on 2010's tide.

So what, exactly, does Pennsylvania have against women candidates? The answer is complicated, said female pundits and politicians alike.

Ask Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman - whose name has been widely touted as a possible Republican candidate for attorney general in 2012 - and she visibly stiffens.

It's not, she says, that Pennsylvania's electorate won't embrace a female candidate.

"From the perspective of society and its willingness to accept women as leaders in government, we're there," Ferman said. "The question now becomes: Why are there so few?"

Balchunis-Harris and others argue that while the electorate may be ready, Pennsylvania's deck remains stacked against women. Structural factors such as the state's old political machines and closed primaries have made it difficult to break through.

"Women candidates typically come from community groups and not through the party system," Balchunis-Harris said. "And if you neglect the party in Pennsylvania, you do so at your peril."

While women have proved popular with independent voters, such voters get little say in selecting candidates here: only registered D's and R's get to vote in the parties' primaries.

Former Philadelphia Councilwoman Happy Fernandez found that out when she quit her post in 1999 to become the city's first serious female mayoral candidate.

Now president of Moore College of Art and Design, she said she found herself having to justify her more subdued style of politicking on the campaign trail.

"Politics has such a horrible reputation in this state," Fernandez said. "It's still perceived as a man's game - tough and nasty. I remember when I first ran, people would say, 'Why does a nice woman like you want to run?' "

Lynn H. Yeakel had a ready answer when she took on then-Sen. Arlen Specter in 1992, dubbed "The Year of the Woman" in politics. She ran in response to Specter's intense questioning of Anita Hill in the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. But Yeakel found her gender wasn't necessarily a selling point with voters.

While the climate has changed, roadblocks persist, said Yeakel, now head of the Institute for Women's Health and Leadership at Drexel University's medical school.

"There are certainly more women out there that I think are trained to run, in terms of raising money," she said. "But then we still have to get the parties to back them and people to vote for them."

Schwartz, in the third decade of her political career, has learned to navigate these treacherous waters. Having run with and without party support, she insists toughness is still qualification No. 1 for any woman in a Pennsylvania campaign.

She still finds Washington's political culture more open to women than Pennsylvania's.

"I think there's still an assumption that a man enters a race more prepared," Schwartz said. "You just have to work a little bit harder. You have to be a little more prepared."

Does any of this bode well for women in 2012, when Pennsylvania elects a state attorney general, auditor general, and treasurer?

Ferman, for one, remains coy about her intentions. "Right now, I'm running for reelection. . . . As far as what could happen in the future? I just have to keep my eyes and ears open, and keep my options open."

Contact staff writer Jeremy Roebuck at 267-564-5218 or

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