Sunday, May 27, 2007

You still have to go a long way, baby

Alexandra Starr, in a New Republic essay published in the Post-Gazette, laments that the blue northeastern states are far less hospitable to female politicians than the red west:

Massachusetts and Rhode Island don't have any women in their congressional delegations, either, and Pennsylvania has one of the lowest percentages of female state legislators outside the South. In Rhode Island, female delegates make up a paltry 19.5 percent of the legislature -- placing the state behind such liberal bastions as Kansas, Nebraska and Idaho.

Indeed, if many left-leaning Northeastern states have proved surprisingly inhospitable to female politicians, the reverse is true of many conservative Western states. In 1999, women held the top five statewide offices in Arizona, which is also the only state where female governors have served back-to-back. Meanwhile, Colorado has the fifth-highest percentage of female legislators in the country and is one of only six states where a woman serves as speaker of the state Senate.

The reasons? The old-school political machines, and their frat-boy culture, that still wield a lot of power in vetting candidates, and the demands of full-time legislatures, which are rare in the west:

The part-time political culture of the West -- where elected office can seem more like a hobby than a job -- also tends to favor women. As Alan Ehrenhalt pointed out in the late '80s, when he investigated why Colorado's state legislature had the highest percentage of female delegates in the country, the Colorado legislature only meets part-time (which makes it more family-friendly) and doesn't pay much (which may dissuade some male breadwinners from running). "While men tend to get involved in politics as a premeditated career option," says Ms. Walsh, "women often run because they want to fix something."

In the Northeast, bosses long had an interest in making government service a profitable profession. As a result, many legislatures pay a sizable salary -- and demand a full-time commitment. "In a part-time legislature, service can be an extension of volunteerism," says Jennifer Mann, a Democratic state legislator from Allentown, Pa. "In a place like Pennsylvania, you don't fall into a political career by happenstance. It's not something you add to your life -- it really replaces what you used to do."

One result, Starr says, is that would-be female office holders in the northeast tend to gravitate toward the Republican Party, a traditional minority in much of the region, and thus eager to embrace anyone who wants to run for office. All in all, it's another cost of the culture of corruption and cronyism that has turned Pennsylvania into a political and economic backwater.



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