CONTRIBUTORS

For a Woman to Reach the White House, 2012 Elections Will Be Key

Posted April 10, 2011, at 2 p.m.
Last modified April 10, 2011, at 9:56 p.m.

When Geraldine Ferraro, the history-making former vice presidential candidate, died last month, another history-making female politician reflected on her legacy.

“She paved the way for a generation of female leaders and put the first cracks in America’s political glass ceiling,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote in a statement.

Clinton is especially familiar with the glass ceiling. When she ended her candidacy for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, she told her supporters: “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it. And the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sur e knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time.”

Clinton won’t take that path next time, saying on CNN that she won’t serve a second term as secretary of state and has “no intention” of running for office again.

Perhaps the torch is passing to a new generation of political women. But whose arms are outstretched? A few highly visible names in national politics — Bachmann, Giffords, Gillibrand, Haley, Palin, Pelosi — mask the reality that progress in electing women has stalled.

Almost three decades after Ferraro’s pathbreaking candidacy, only one other woman has won a spot on a major party’s national ticket. The number of women in Congress fell from 90 in 2010 to 88 today, the first decline in 30 years. In state legislatures, the number of women slipped by an alarming 81 nationwide after the last election, a full percentage point drop. Women hold less than 17 percent of congressional seats, six of 50 governorships and not even a quarter of state legislative posts. A group that represents more than half the U.S. population has yet to break the 25 percent barrier at any level. To see a woman in the White House in our lifetimes, we must see more women in these elective offices first.

This isn’t just about numbers. Research shows that female officeholders change both the policy agenda and the governing process. Whether the issue is equal access to credit (Bella Abzug) or education (Patsy Mink), family and medical leave (Marge Roukema), or inclusion of women in medical research (Pat Schroeder and Olympia Snowe), female lawmakers long have been recognized as powerful voices on behalf of women, children and families.

The next election year, 2012, could be pivotal in bringing new women into politics. With the reapportionment and redistricting after the 2010 census, we’re likely to see major shifts in both Congress and state legislatures as longtime incumbents retire, current lawmakers confront new constituencies and new seats are added in key states. (The last giant increase in female candidates was in 1992, another post-census election.) At least eight of the 33 Senate races in 2012 will feature open seats. And recent election cycles have shown that the electorate is volatile and primed for change. Incumbency no longer is a near-guarantee of victory.

So newcomers have an unparalleled opportunity to break into the system, but that won’t happen on its own. In a study of state legislators by our organization, the Center for American Women and Politics, or CAWP, at Rutgers University, almost twice as many women as men said they decided to run only after it was suggested to them, while nearly twice as many men as women said the decision to run was entirely theirs.

One woman who started as an advocate for education, ended up on her local school board and then in the state legislature before rising still further, begins her official online bio by admitting, “Patty Murray never planned to enter politics, but today she is serving her fourth term in the U.S. Senate as a member of the Democratic Leadership.” And about a third of female state representatives, compared with only about a quarter of men, say someone tried to discourage them from running — most often an officeholder or party official.

Political parties remain women’s largest roadblock. The old boys’ network retains its grip on power and leaves building a more gender-balanced ballot to groups that focus solely on finding female candidates.

Organizations across the political spectrum — from Emily’s List to the Susan B. Anthony Fund, from Emerge America (for Democrats) to the Excellence in Public Service Series (for Republicans) — have made significant efforts to advance women in politics. It shouldn’t fall to women’s groups alone, however, but to all who select and promote candidates. The pipeline that would fill with women at the local level and channel them into successively higher offices may not be empty, but we need more than a trickle — we need a torrent.

—•—

Political women typically come from professions more common for women in general: education, nursing, social work and, more recently, the law. Now we must look beyond traditional sources.

Three recent examples: Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., worked for an Internet start-up that eventually became RealNetworks. Former Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., now a Senate candidate, was an Air Force officer and is an expert on defense, arms control and business development. Rep. Nan Hayworth, R-N.Y., is a retired ophthalmologist.

We’re working on the 2012 Project – a national, nonpartisan CAWP campaign in collaboration with California political strategist Mary Hughes – to inspire thousands of women to ponder a new idea: that their talents and experience might equip them to run for office.

We seek candidates ages 45 and older who already have reduced family responsibilities and established careers, especially in fields underrepresented in elective offices, including finance, science, technology, energy and health care.

Here are a few who are considering races for the state legislature or Congress:

  • A Pennsylvania Republican, an entrepreneur and expert in health-care and biotech management, who encountered the 2012 Project at an Association for Women Entrepreneurs event.
  • A Florida Democrat who is a retired teacher and current real estate agent, and who cares deeply about education and has been politically active at the local and state levels.
  • A Republican lawyer in Louisiana motivated by her belief that vulnerable people don’t get the health care they need because the system is inefficient and difficult to navigate.
  • A New York Democrat, owner of an online solar and renewable-energy business, who is interested in alternative energy and environmental concerns.

Others must follow. As Ferraro once said, “Every time a woman runs, women win.” We can’t afford to miss the unique opportunity for that victory in 2012. Once that door closes, it won’t be as wide open again until after the next census — and we can’t wait until 2022.

Debbie Walsh is director and Kathy Kleeman is senior communications officer at the Center for American Women and Politics, part of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.

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