Pennsylvania lags in number of female legislators

Babette Josephs sees "men, and . . . more men" in Harrisburg.
Babette Josephs sees "men, and . . . more men" in Harrisburg.
Posted: July 29, 2012

HARRISBURG - Asked to describe her experience as a woman in the Capitol, longtime Philadelphia Democratic State Rep. Babette Josephs offered this: "Well, there's men, and there's more men. Anything else you'd like to know?"

That about sums it up.

Pennsylvania ranks between Mississippi and West Virginia in its low proportion of women in the state legislature.

The state ranks 42d in the nation, with women holding 17 percent of Pennsylvania's legislative seats, according to the most recent numbers from the Rutgers University Center for American Women and Politics. Women hold just 43 of the 253 seats in the General Assembly.

And the political picture hasn't changed much from just more than a decade ago, when Pennsylvania ranked in 44th place.

Political scientists say Pennsylvania's stagnation in government gender diversity is a result of the state's largely conservative political culture.

And it's not just among voters. Thomas Baldino, a Wilkes University political science professor, and others say the political parties have not been aggressive in breaking down barriers for women or erasing negative stereotypes of female candidates.

"Pennsylvania is a very socially conservative state," Baldino said. "In the past, we had very few women seeking office, and once they did, we weren't electing them."

Perhaps the most telling statistic is that only one congressional seat out of 21 in Pennsylvania is held by a woman: Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz, a Democrat from Philadelphia.

That is unmatched by any other state with a comparable number of congressional seats. Ohio, for instance, has four women among its delegation of 20.

Philadelphia has been the most progressive county in the state for women, with seven in the House and three in the Senate. Women make up more than 31 percent of Philadelphia's total representation.

In Bucks and Montgomery Counties, women hold 30 percent of the state House seats. Delaware County has one woman in the state House; Chester County has no women in its delegation. There are no female state senators from any of the four suburban counties.

Women aren't heavily represented in legislative leadership ranks, either. For instance, when top legislative Republicans met with Gov. Corbett to negotiate a budget in June, there was no female legislator at the table.

And while Corbett has appointed five women to his cabinet, that is fewer than the eight named to the Rendell administration when it took office in 2003.

"In the past, [Corbett] has leaned more toward male leadership," Rep. Susan Helm (R., Dauphin) said. "If it was a choice between a man and a woman, he would talk to a man. That was just his personal preference. But I think he's changing."

Kirsten Page, a Corbett spokeswoman, called Helm's statement "ridiculous."

"Tom Corbett has supported women in public office for many years," she said, "and has many women working in the governor's office, including senior staff advisers."

Regardless, many female legislators say women's issues, such as health care, day care, and early-childhood education, aren't being adequately addressed in Pennsylvania, largely as a result of the paucity of women in public office.

"These men don't know what it means to have the obligations that you do as a woman," Josephs said. "You can certainly have some sort of an imagination. But if you don't live it, it's not the same."

Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware), disputed that.

"I don't think representation is measured in the people that are necessarily in the room as compared to those people they're getting input from," said Arneson. "Just because a senator is a man doesn't mean he's not representing the women in his district."

Rep. Sheryl Delozier (R., Cumberland) agreed. She said traditional gender roles have evolved and differences between legislators are a result of party lines, not gender.

Many female legislators contend that regardless of the issues addressed, women bring a different perspective to the table. Some contended that women are better at compromise than men and as a result the budget process would have been completed more efficiently had there been female legislators at the negotiating table.

"We all said that," Helm said.

Philadelphia City Councilman Dennis O'Brien, who was the Republican speaker of the House before winning his Council seat, said he too thought women brought needed difference to the legislature.

"Women are more focused on what you're for than what you're against," he said. "They focus on moderating a solution. . . . We would be better served if we attracted more women."

With 52 percent of all registered voters in Pennsylvania being women, female legislators interviewed held out hope that the political climate will change.

But before that can happen, those legislators said, the political parties must change as well. Nearly all blamed the parties for failing to court women.

"When I decided to run, I was told I couldn't win because I was a female," Helm said, referring to her 2006 campaign. "They said it wasn't because of my abilities, it was because I was a female."

Delozier said the presumption that women should either be mothers or legislators posed an obstacle when she ran for office.

"I was asked who was going to take care of my children, and two of my male counterparts were not," Delozier said. "They had children younger than mine."

But Rep. Kate Harper (R., Montgomery) said she believes voters are more open-minded than the parties.

"I think voters are more used to women than the party leaders are," Harper said.

Although women don't hold many of the leadership positions within the legislature, State Rep. Madeleine Dean (D., Montgomery), a newcomer, said that would fix itself in time.

"As more women come into the legislature, more will naturally step into those leadership positions," she said.

Dean was sworn into office in May. She said many of her female colleagues have told her the legislature is better than it used to be.

"I think it might be an older culture that is shifting," said Dean. "I have found that everybody across the aisle has been very collegial."


Contact Clara Ritger at 717-787-5990 or critger@nd.edu.

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