Chatham official: Why shouldn't women shape political agenda?

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Dana Brown believes it's time to stage a political intervention with the women and girls of Pennsylvania and, in her new job, she has a platform from which to launch it.

A month ago, Ms. Brown became executive director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy, based at Chatham University. The nonpartisan organization's mission is to educate and empower women in state politics.

National studies put Pennsylvania in the bottom five of all states ranked by women's political representation and involvement.

Job: Executive director, Pennsylvania Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy at Chatham University

Age: 31

Hometown: Castle Shannon; resides in Shadyside

Education: Bachelor's, political science, Allegheny College, 2000; master's, political science, Rutgers University, 2007; doctoral candidate, American politics and women and politics, Rutgers University

Career: 2000-01: development assistant, Emily's List, Washington, D.C.; 2001-04: member services, Investment Company Institute, Washington, D.C.; 2004-07: coordinator, Public Leadership Education Network, Center for American Women and Politics, Rutgers University; 2008-09: graduate assistant, Center for Race and Ethnicity, Rutgers University; 2009-10: visiting assistant professor, political science, Allegheny College, Meadville; July 15: started current job at Chatham

The state has never elected a female governor or U.S. senator, has only two women among its 19 elected delegates to the U.S. House of Representatives, and has a full-time state Legislature where women comprise only 15 percent of the membership, she said.

Besides electing more females to public office, Ms. Brown wants to see more women get seats on appointed boards and positions as public advocates. "The number of women in politics in Pennsylvania is not going to go up on its own," said Ms. Brown, a political scientist by training.

Founded in 1998 with a gift from the Hillman Foundation and the Maurice Falk Medical Foundation, the center offers programs for students and working women to help develop leadership, campaign and networking skills, and to become more politically aware.

With gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races on the November ballot in Pennsylvania, Ms. Brown sees the next few months as significant to igniting more political interest among women.

"I would like a special push to be made for appointments with women in mind regardless of who the next governor is."

Taking a break last week from setting up speakers, events and research activities, Ms. Brown sat in a meeting room on the nearly deserted Chatham campus -- its students return later this month -- to discuss her new position and why women lag in the state's political culture.

Q: Women comprise more than half of the U.S. workforce and almost half of the state workforce. Why are they so underrepresented in elected office in Pennsylvania?

A: When you take a look at some of the barriers, some are institutional. We have a strong party system here in Pennsylvania coupled with a very professionalized legislature.

What political science has found is that full-time legislatures with well-paying salaries tend to be highly competitive and meet year-round. That's not really been conducive to getting women into those offices. If you have one, two or five children -- even with a supportive partner -- it's a very difficult schedule.

And there is the geography of Pennsylvania. We're not a small state. Depending on how close you are to Harrisburg, the commute and leaving children at home with your husband or partner can be a bit more taxing for moms. It's a lot of time away in that work-life family balance that a lot of women still struggle with.

Q: What about local offices that don't involve travel such as school boards, township and borough commissions? Do women have more chance of impact there?

A: We'll be tracking those numbers. My question has always been: What if we really are doing well at the county level? If so, if we happen to be doing better than expected, how can we use that as a springboard to get women elected to state and federal offices? That's a research initiative we'll be doing because we should know that information.

Intervention at the state level is so important for women because that way you have a legislative history, a history of donors and you are able to say, "I can take it to the next level." But that only happens if you run.

Q: So how do you encourage more women to take the plunge and run?

A: We're asking them to run. So many women wait to be asked. Don't be afraid. And if you lose, run again. Look at [President Richard] Nixon [who failed in bids for California governor and U.S. president before being elected]. If you fall down, dust your knees off and get back up. As a bonus, you have name recognition.

Losing the first time is not necessarily a bad thing. You can spin that to your favor. It doesn't necessarily mean your community doesn't want you and that you're not a leader. It may not be right at that particular time. Once you get your name on that ballot, people start getting comfortable seeing your name, and you get more comfortable asking for that vote -- and, by God, you have to ask. You just have to keep running.

Women tend to be rather risk-averse. There's this culture of all of us becoming superwomen, supermoms and failure is our enemy. I say, it's OK. Embrace failure. We'll all fail at some time. It's what you do with that failure.

Q: Recent female candidates for high office were defeated -- namely, Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton. Does that encourage or discourage you?

A: I say this gingerly, I suppose, but both were good for women in politics in that we should see women running for those offices regularly and think nothing of it.

Q: Why is it critical in the larger scheme of government to get more women involved?

A: Public policy happens whether women are at the table or not. We are all affected by it. As women, we have shared experiences, different experiences, and they're all valid. All should be considered at the legislative table. That policy is going to be written whether we're present or not, so why not be there to shape that agenda, craft that agenda and craft that policy piece?

Women, regardless of party, tend to cooperate better on traditional women's issues: health care, caring for the elderly, child care, education. They tend to find areas of agreement more so than their male colleagues.

Q: So how does the center specifically try to boost women's ranks in politics?

A: We have a number of programs and initiatives. Our annual National Education for Women Leadership Pennsylvania is a six-day-long residential experience at Chatham, where we pull young women from across the commonwealth to live on campus, meet women in elected and appointed office, and women advocates.

They can actually see women with shared experiences ... who are doing great things for the state. They see other women as mentors. It was originally designed for college women, but I would like to draw more nontraditional women such as women going back to school at various ages or moms who have a lot to offer.

We also offer campaign training as part of a national network, Ready to Run. There is training for those who have already decided to run and identified the office they would like; and another track for those who are just thinking about it. Maybe they've already run their PTA or been involved in communities and they're thinking, what's next?

Our Hillman Chair in Politics will bring to campus some highly visible women who could be women political journalists, elected women officials or retired female public officials. We bring them in for an open-to-the-public lecture series.

As part of the Public Leadership Education Network we participate in, we give Chatham students the opportunity to participate in Washington, D.C.-based seminars on women in law, women in public policy, women in science and technology or women in international policy.

And our Project Pericles is a national initiative to increase civic engagement with undergraduate students. We have speakers coming in, and we invited both candidates for governor. Dan Onorato is coming and we hope Tom Corbett will, too.

Q: Do you have any downtime with your new job?

A: My fiance is in New Jersey, so on weekends we take turns driving to see each other. I get to see the great Commonwealth.

When I mentioned geography as a barrier to women in the state, I'm sympathetic as someone who makes the drive.

Joyce Gannon: or 412-263-1580.


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