Forum: Women, start your political engines
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It has been said that democracy without women is not democracy. Many believe this to be true. The American-supported interim constitution for Iraq requires the fledgling democracy to include at least 25 percent women in its parliament. In contrast, Pennsylvania's Legislature does not even muster 15 percent women.
Allyson Lowe is director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy (www.chatham.edu/pcwppp) and assistant professor of political science at Chatham College (firstname.lastname@example.org). Kristin DeLuca is director of the Regional Women?s Initiative (email@example.com).
Until Tuesday, not one of the 47 House seats from the 10-county southwestern Pennsylvania region was held by a woman. Tuesday's election witnessed challenger victories in often contentious primary races and new faces added to party committees.
In the months leading into the primary, the momentum built for "change." From the way the Legislature is structured and operates, to the individuals who make decisions and in the way those decisions were made -- like the midnight pay raise -- the momentum for change reached far enough and deep enough to motivate newcomers to electoral politics to offer themselves as candidates. Among them were the women of Western Pennsylvania. These women organized campaigns, ran as candidates and in several cases won, decisively. Many groups rallied around candidates and championed the call for change including non-partisan coalitions such as statewide PA Clean Sweep and the local efforts of Run, Baby, Run.
The flurry of challenger activity, especially that centered on women candidates, prompted many citizens and media members to ask "Do women matter to politics?" The answer is most definitely yes.
Research indicates that women officeholders shape what gets discussed in campaign races and in the halls of the government, and broaden the types of bills advanced in the Legislature. Women legislators have better track records in constituent service, employ a more hands-on approach to working with legislative colleagues and engage a broader range of people in formulating policy.
With regard to women in particular, women legislators on both sides of aisle are the leading voices for the so-called "women's issues" that are now the hottest issues of the day: health care, children and education, care for our seniors. Their attention to traditional issues such as budgeting and crime is no less serious. Diversifying our representation diversifies the scope of the issues and possible solutions to public problems. This is truly a positive sign for our region, for representation and for equity among our citizens.
These types of changes begin when a small number of women enter the Legislature. They reach their fullest impact when women constitute one-third or more of the legislators.
So where do we find more women to enter into the political pipeline? Traditionally, political candidates are self-selected -- they put themselves forward, or they are tapped by political leaders from places of high public visibility such as corporate boards of directors and prominent law firms. Women are making inroads to these power positions in the region, but have a tendency to wait to be asked to run.
But as recent writings in the pages of this paper suggest, that progress is painfully slow and needs to be jump-started by concerned citizens and leaders. This is where training, mentoring and community support make a difference.
To those who seek an invitation to join the political process, we are asking you to get involved. We must volunteer to run, support candidates we believe in, and cultivate, mentor and fund new political talent. We must raise the level of public debate and expectation about who is in politics and how they perform. And, we must be ready to be our own advocates.
We know that education and encouragement help women run and win. The Pennsylvania Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy at Chatham College is deeply committed to training and empowering women for public leadership and we stand ready as a resource. To the women who won, we send our congratulations. To the women who did not prevail this time, we encourage you to do what so many candidates before you have done:
Run again with the skills and lessons you learned. You follow the path of many successful elected officials before you and join the ranks of change.
First Published May 21, 2006 12:00 am