The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

March 22, 2008

State, region lag behind nation in women legislators


In 1922, an Ebensburg school principal was one of the first eight women elected to the state House of Representatives.

But in the 85 years that have passed since that momentous vote, only two other Cambria County women have been selected for the state legislature. No women from Somerset County have served in Harrisburg.

It is a trend mirrored throughout Pennsylvania, which consistently ranks among the states with the lowest percentage of female lawmakers.

Observers say a host of barriers, both real and perceived, may keep women from getting involved in state office. And some are working hard to change that.

But the legislature’s current makeup does not reflect a populace that, locally and statewide, is about 50 percent female – although it is not uncommon to find women in key positions in local municipal government.

“It’s disappointing, but we’re going to keep trying,” said Rob Gleason, chairman of the Cambria County and Pennsylvania Republican parties.

“We’re very interested in talking to any woman who wants to get involved.”

Next month’s primary ballot will feature a woman, Hillary Clinton, trying to become to first of her gender to secure the Democratic nomination for president.

Locally, however, the ballot will be a prime example of the dearth of women seeking office at the state level: Of 27 candidates for state office in Cambria and Somerset counties, none are female.

Other statistics further illustrate the issue:

n Pennsylvania, with women making up 14.6 percent of its legislature, ranks 43rd among the 50 states in that category, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

n Of more than 430 candidates vying for state office throughout Pennsylvania in the April 22 primary, only 14 percent are women.

n No woman from Cambria or Somerset counties has reached the state Senate.

n No woman from either county has served more than two terms in the state House. Sara Steelman, who served from 1991 to 2002, represented a small portion of Cambria County but was based in Indiana County.

‘Great resistance’

Reflecting on those numbers, some conclude that there remains a “glass ceiling” blocking many women from rising through the governmental ranks.

After Steelman was defeated in November 2002, she contended that “there’s great resistance and suspicion about a woman who’s outspoken.”

And others say gender bias remains an issue in government, even at the local level. Women’s campaigns and political initiatives are sometimes not taken seriously, they say.

“The ‘good old boys club’ is alive, well and flourishing,” said Ann Wilson, the only woman on Johnstown City Council and executive director of Cambria County Republican Committee.

“That’s not a myth,” she added. “That’s reality.”

Stereotypes and outdated ideas of gender roles are part of that reality, observers claim.

Allyson Lowe, director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy at Pittsburgh’s Chatham University, said it is not uncommon for a female candidate to be asked, “Are you abandoning your children?

“We don’t typically ask that question of men,” Lowe said.

State Rep. Chelsa Wagner, a Democrat from Pittsburgh serving her first term, said she has seen “overt” examples of sexism in state politics.

She adds that, when she decided to seek office, “I was offered other positions so that I wouldn’t run.”

At age 30, Wagner sometimes is mistaken for a staff member rather than an elected representative in the state Capitol. But she said she has overcome these issues.

“People know that I’m outspoken, I’m persistent and that I work hard on issues,” Wagner said. “I’ve probably surprised people sometimes.”

However, assertiveness also might be used against a female politician.

Some perceive a persistent bias against Hillary Clinton in media coverage. That trend, they say, may actually discourage women who are considering a political run.

Women wonder, Lowe said, “how will I be treated as a candidate?

“And we’ve certainly seen some of that play out in the presidential primary,” she said.

‘I want it to matter’

In fact, officials say a low opinion of the political process is one reason that many women choose to not enter that arena.

With memories of Pennsylvania’s legislative pay raise scandal lingering, and with partisan squabbles regularly making headlines, many are disillusioned with the inner workings of state government.

Pamela Tokar-Ickes is only the second female commissioner in Somerset County.

But Tokar-Ickes never has seriously considered running for state office, in part because she worries that she would lose the “hands-on” feel of county government.

“The time I dedicate to public service, I want it to matter,” Tokar-Ickes said. “(In Harrisburg), decisions are made by a very small group of people. And that doesn’t appeal to me.”

Steelman believes that, during her time in the House, she “was able to make a few things happen, and I was able to change some people’s minds on issues.”

But she also said state government is rigidly structured and slow to act. That can be “really disturbing” for someone who goes to Harrisburg with specific goals in mind, Steelman said.

“Women tend to run for office because they want to accomplish something – something other than simply getting elected to office,” Steelman said.

The fact that the Pennsylvania legislature is full time also may play a role in limiting women’s participation, some believe.

Lowe points out that Maryland has a much higher percentage of female legislators, about 31 percent. That state’s governing body is considered part time and is in session only 90 days each year.

Lowe says full-time legislative jobs often are treated as long-term careers and are subject to more control by political parties, with less tolerance of newcomers.

‘Timing is everything’

In some cases, though, working women simply are choosing to stay near their families rather than spend part of the year in Harrisburg.

That was a key factor in Wilson’s decision not to seek state office this year, although some lobbied for her to run.

With a full-time job, her City Council post and three children at home, Wilson said she “couldn’t see myself serving the people of this district and my family.

“There’s a part of me that would have loved to run,” she said. “Timing is everything, and I had to make a decision. It is not a 9-to-5 job.”

Wagner said that is a common sentiment among women, who sometimes wait until their children have grown before entering politics.

That is a highly personal decision, but it also can damage a lawmaker’s chance at gaining seniority and influence.

“With women, you see very few who are doing this at an early stage in their careers,” Wagner said, adding that she agrees that a legislator’s obligations are unpredictable.

“You never know when your schedule’s changing,” she said. “You never know where you’re going to be in Harrisburg, especially during budget season.”

‘Getting involved’

Uncertainty regarding legislative work hours and travel will not change.

But some are hoping to encourage more women to run by offering programs designed to alleviate uncertainty about politics.

Too often, advocates say, women “wait to be asked” to run for office rather than volunteering. Wilson said she is frustrated that, when it comes to politics, many women don’t seem to believe in their own abilities.

“The smartest women I meet will tell me they don’t know enough to run for school board,” she said.

A GOP-affiliated effort, dubbed the Anne Anstine Excellence in Public Service Series, is aimed at increasing “the number and influence of Pennsylvania’s Republican women in government and politics,” according to its Web site.

Gleason calls the initiative “a wonderful way to get women involved.”

State Sen. Lisa Baker, a first-term Republican based in Luzerne County, is a graduate of the Anstine program.

Baker said she has been interested in politics since high school, and her state government experience includes service as deputy chief of staff for Gov. Tom Ridge and Gov. Mark Schweiker.

But she said the Anstine initiative “really helped solidify my interest” in elected office.

“It gave me the insight on what it would take to put a campaign together,” Baker said.

The program linked Baker with a mentor, Republican state Sen. Jane Earll. And Baker said she wants to return the favor by acting as “a role model and a mentor for young women.”

At Chatham University, Lowe offers the “Winning Edge” – an intensive, three-day training program that has helped women prepare for politics.

“To me, what’s encouraging is that more women are getting involved,” Lowe said.

“When I see women willing to take that risk, I think that’s a really good sign for all of us.”

Some Web sites concerning women and politics:

National Foundation for Women Legislators:

Center for American Women and Politics:

Anne Anstine Excellence in Public Service Series:

Pennsylvania Women’s Campaign Fund:

Pennsylvania Women’s Legislative Exchange:

Pennsylvania Federation of Republican Women:

Pennsylvania Federation of Democratic Women: