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The simple act of having more people telling women to run for election is a major key to increasing diversity in the legislature, experts say, and it could help increase the number of women running in the upcoming April primary.
“What we know historically is these political parties are organizations that were created by men for men, many years ago, in order to identify and recruit candidates,” says Dana Brown, executive director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women in Politics at Chatham University. “I think it’s incumbent on the leaders of the party to be purposeful of their recruitment. There’s research out there that indicates that it really was a political party official asking a woman to run that was really a tipping point for her to make that decision.”
Chatham runs training sessions for women interested in running for office and recently had a session on Jan. 30 where women learned about topics like political parties and fundraising. The university also inspired Run Baby Run, a non-partisan political action committee established in 2006 that helped Wagner and Bennington get elected.
Brown says another barrier that keeps women from running for office is the challenge of facing off against an incumbent, which experts say is difficult for candidates regardless of gender. That’s why Brown says organizations dedicated to getting more women in office should be monitoring seats to keep abreast of when vacancies are going to be available.
That’s exactly what led to Arnet, of the Women and Girls Foundation, to run for a state Senate seat in a special election last year when former state Sen. Matt Smith announced he was stepping down. Arnet was ultimately defeated by Republican challenger Guy Reschenthaler in an election that broke fundraising records.
“The greatest barriers for women running for state legislature right now are experienced in a partisan fashion,” Arnet said in an email. “The GOP is investing heavily — in our state and across the nation — in buying up legislative seats and legislative chambers. … Until the Democratic party, partners, and national (and local) progressive donors and PACs begin to take state legislatures seriously, the party will continue to lose seats and women will find it a continued challenge to oppose heavily financed GOP candidates.”
According to the National Foundation for Women Legislators, fundraising and a lack of support from political parties are two of the largest barriers women face when getting elected. But another barrier is the gender roles that still exist in society.
“I mean, let’s face it, the women in America, by and large, are still the ones who take care of the children and run the house,” says Jody Thomas, NFWL executive director. “So that’s a big drawback, the difficulty of the work-life balance and being able to be out of town for days at a time to go to the state capitol.”
And even when women don’t view themselves as responsible for traditional gender roles, Thomas says some of their colleagues are quick to remind them.
“There’s still a lot of biases,” says Thomas. “We have a state senator in South Carolina, the only woman senator in South Carolina, and last year one of her male colleagues made the comment that ‘Women should stay home and be barefoot and pregnant.’”
Despite setbacks like these, Thomas said progress has been made, and she hopes efforts to get women elected at the national level will begin to trickle down to seats in the state legislature.
“When you think about it, it took 72 years of struggle to get the 19th Amendment to the Constitution,” says Thomas. “This year, we already have two women running for president, so we are making major strides. But we just can’t stop.”