Karen Heller: Why are there so few female lawmakers representing Pa.?

Posted: March 14, 2012

March is a festival of celebrations: the advent of spring, St. Patrick's Day, the exaltation of frozen food, and the history of women.

Yet, according to Rutgers' Center for American Women and Politics, Pennsylvania ranks 42d in electing women to the state legislature.

Friends, this qualifies as good news. Three years ago, we were 46th.

Pennsylvania is the sole Northeastern state loitering in the bottom quintile (once 43d, New Jersey is 10th) along with such territories of progress as Utah, Wyoming, North Dakota, and a huge swath of Dixie, including rock-bottom South Carolina, which actually has a female governor, something we've never come remotely close to achieving. Just two Pennsylvania women have been major candidates for U.S. Senate. Lynn Yeakel was in 1992.

Does that seem like yesterday? No, it does not. It seems like a gazillion years ago.

Only 17 percent of our bloated, overpriced legislature is female. Consider the wonderful strides Harrisburg is making for women: regulating abortion clinics into extinction, while trying to pass the "women's right-to-know" bill - now stalled - which obstructs and complicates access to abortion.

U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz remains the lone woman in the 19-member Pennsylvania House delegation that represents 12.7 million Pennsylvanians in Washington. "It is our responsibility to increase our number, our clout, and the power of women in leadership," she said Tuesday in Pittsburgh, accepting an award for women's leadership. Next month, Schwartz hosts a "Women in Politics" reception in the Warwick's grand ballroom, though perhaps a coat closet might be a better size.

"What we know is that women are less likely to run unless someone asks them," says Rutgers' Debbie Walsh. "They have to be asked to the dance." Pennsylvania has entrenched party politics and a huge conservative base in the state's center, which are slow to embrace change.

Sen. Mary Jo White (R., Venango), chair of Environmental Resources and Energy, and one of 11 women in the 50-member state Senate, recalls, "One of the barriers when I started was that women could not raise money. I always tell young women how challenging a career in politics can be on a lot of levels." White is retiring after 16 years in Harrisburg - no woman is running to replace her - as is fellow Sen. Jane Earll (R., Erie).

Issues help bring women into politics. Yeakel ran in the vaunted Year of the Woman - as if we get only one - among a large national field of female candidates after Anita Hill's Senate Judiciary Committee testimony on Clarence Thomas.

"I think that, in some ways, we've been seeing renewed interest in the last eight weeks around the issue of contraception" and abortion, Walsh says, "which could have spurred more women to run for office, but came too late in the electoral calendar."

Many women, like Yeakel, now prefer to labor outside elected office. Given the nature of contemporary politics, who can blame them? Yeakel co-chairs Vision 2020, which strives to achieve gender equality - in pay, leadership roles, education, and family responsibility. "The focus we have is on getting more women to vote," she says. "If more women voted, more women would get elected."

But women vote, representing 53 percent of the all voters in the 2008 presidential election. Guess what. There's still no notable spike in female candidates. This year, women are expected to play a decisive role again after reproductive health, of all issues, became part of the debate, widening the gender gap between parties.

The fight over reproductive health is about many issues - President Obama, national health care, religious freedom, sex, the insurance industry - but also about women and gender equality.

When she ran, Yeakel recalls different standards, "having my clothes described, my hair," as if that changed for Sarah Palin, Hillary Clinton, or Michele Bachmann.

In Pennsylvania's April 24 primary, six women are competing for U.S. House seats, one woman for state attorney general, another for secretary of state.

In the 42d state, you look for victories where you can.

Contact Karen Heller

at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @kheller.

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