Pennsylvania women in politics crawl toward equality

Posted: August 28, 2014

FORMER Democratic gubernatorial candidate Katie McGinty was into one of her cheerleader-type speeches on the Capitol steps.

The subject was women in politics.

"Are we fired up?" she asked. "Are we fired up?"

I know I was. It was hot in Harrisburg's midday sun.

McGinty yesterday stood in front of two dozen women running for Congress or the Legislature and suggested more women in office means more investment in education, pre-schooling and health care and also more jobs.

The event marked the 94th anniversary of certification of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote.

It was billed as an "Equality Day" event.

It was organized by ByWomen4Women, a group of former and current female candidates founded by Lois Herr, a Mount Gretna, Lebanon County, borough council member and unsuccessful congressional candidate.

It was noted that there are more women running in this year's general election than at any time in Pennsylvania history.

About now you're likely wondering why is this guy writing about this? Isn't it, at most, a photo op?

You make a good point.

But this is an issue I think is important. It's one I've written about for years. And I've always been fascinated by Pennsylvania's dismal record of electing women.

First, I should note that at this "Equality Day," equality was limited to Democrats.

There are GOP female legislators and others running. There's a Republican woman, Megan Rath, running for Congress against Philly U.S. Rep. Bob Brady.

There just weren't any Republican women on the Capitol steps.

So there's that.

Afterward, Herr told me her organization supports only Democratic women: "Republican women are more organized than we are."

The Legislature has 24 Republican women, 21 Democratic women.

Which gets to my actual point.

That total of 45 ranks Pennsylvania 38th in the nation, lowest of all northeastern states, mid-Atlantic states and neighboring states with the exception of usually reliable-to-be-slightly-worse-than-us-in-anything West Virginia. It's 44th.

Know who else ranks below us? Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and states like that.

We've never elected a female governor or U.S. senator.

Our 20-member congressional delegation of 18 representatives and two senators could be all male next year since Allyson Schwartz gave up her seat to run for governor.

If so, we'll be the largest state with no elected women in Washington.

There are six women running against incumbents, including the aforementioned Republican Rath in the 1st District and La Salle poli-sci professor Mary Ellen Balchunis in the 7th against Republican Pat Meehan.

But, thanks to gerrymandering and voter apathy, unseating incumbents is rare.

And we are Pennsylvania.

When I ask McGinty why the state has a historical aversion to electing women, she pauses and says, "I don't rightly know, but I wish it could be better."

When I ask Herr, she says, "I want to say tradition. I really don't have an answer."

I've long argued for more women in office. The percentage of women in Congress (18.5 percent) is only slightly higher than the percentage of women in our Legislature (17.8 percent).

Neither of these entrenched bodies, each home to ineptitude and deadlocked drudgery, will change unless infused with new blood.

As the late Margaret Thatcher famously said, "In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman."

There are more women than men in Pennsylvania and in the nation. Women today tend to register and vote more than men do.

And, believe it or not, there are signs of improvement here.

When I wrote about this a decade ago, Pennsylvania was 47th among legislatures. Four years ago, we were 46th.

So a current ranking of 38th suggests progress - call it a crawl toward equality.


Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer

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