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Pennsylvania Disproportionately Elects Men to Political Office

Despite the state’s population being half women, 68 percent of the seats in the Legislature are filled by men. Pennsylvania ranks 14th for women representation in state politics since 2019.

Pennsylvania State Treasurer Stacy Garrity.
Pennsylvania State Treasurer Stacy Garrity.
(Tyger Williams/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)
After Erin McClelland defeated her primary election opponent, state Rep. Ryan Bizzarro, D-Erie County, in April, the contest for Pennsylvania treasurer became the only state row office race in which voters will choose between two women.

The incumbent, Republican Stacy Garrity, is the fifth woman in Pennsylvania history to hold the treasurer's seat, a position charged with managing a staff of more than 300 and the commonwealth's investments.

In recent years, women have been making history more often in Pennsylvania, with progress being made in bringing the number of elected officials into closer alignment with the state's demographics. Yet in a state where half of the 12.9 million residents are women, there still is an imbalance — 68 percent of the positions in the Legislature, for example, are filled by men.

For some candidates — and voters — it's not a focal point.

But advocates from Republican, Democrat and nonpartisan projects created in the past few years with the goal of boosting the percentages of women in office argue that it does make a difference.

"Parity in numbers is one measure and one indicator of women's political influence and their power in the political system," said Kelly Dittmar, a political science professor at Rutgers-Camden and director of research at the Center for American Women in Politics.

Among the 50 states, Pennsylvania ranks 26, the center says, in terms of women representation in politics, which includes members of state legislatures and Congress.

It's a marked improvement from where the state was just a few years ago. In 2016, Pennsylvania was ranked 40.

There have been great strides, especially in Western Pennsylvania. Summer Lee, D-Swissvale, is the first Black woman elected to Congress from Pennsylvania, and Sara Innamorato, another Democrat, the first woman to hold the office of Allegheny County executive.

Both previously served in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives after upsetting male incumbents from the politically prominent Costa family.

Garrity's race against McClelland, while unique in this year's election, isn't the first time two women have faced off for the job. The 1996 and 2000 election cycles saw women vying for the task of handling the state's bank accounts.

But there is still work to be done in bringing more women to such roles. The Keystone State has never had a woman in the governor's office, and just five of its 19 congressional seats are held by women.

"There's no question that women are underrepresented in elected office in the Commonwealth," Garrity said. "I think culturally, we have in the past been more apt to push men to run, and I think that's changing."

McClelland did not respond to requests for comment.

Part of the issue is cultural perception, said Dana Brown, executive director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University.

"Women are perceived by voters as not necessarily being the stronger candidate," she said.

Because of that, women often put off running until they boost their credentials with more education or work experience, Brown said.

Men who run for office tend to be "more likely to assume they already have the confidence and the know-how," she added.

Lack of Women on the Ballot

Pennsylvania has five statewide elected executive positions: governor, lieutenant governor, auditor general, attorney general and treasurer.

This year, the auditor general, attorney general and treasurer positions are on the November ballot. Among those races, only three women ran in the April primary: Garrity, McClelland and longtime Philadelphia public defender Keir Bradford-Grey, who ran in a crowded field in the Democratic attorney general primary and lost to Eugene DePasquale of Pittsburgh.

Advocates would like to see more candidates going out for these jobs.

"We could and we should do better," Garrity said. "When you look at leaders and communities across the state, there are so many qualified businesswomen that could and should be recruited."

Other states are doing better. Nevada has been ranked first by the Center for American Women in Politics in terms of women representation since 2019, the same year it reached parity. This year, 60 percent of the Nevada Legislature are women.

Michigan, a bellwether state like Pennsylvania, ranks 14th. Unlike Pennsylvania, the state has twice elected a woman as governor, and other statewide executive offices are held by women. Women make up about 40 percent of the Michigan Legislature.

When women are in office, advocates note, bills have been introduced and sometimes passed that focus on child care, equal pay and maternal health.

Before becoming a state representative, La'Tasha Mayes, D-Allegheny, was founder and CEO of New Voices Reproductive Justice, an organization focused on creating safe and equitable access to reproductive health.

Recently, the state House approved legislation she sponsored to require Medicaid to cover blood pressure monitors. High blood pressure is a leading cause of maternal mortality.

Structural and Cultural Obstacles to Election

In Pennsylvania history, only nine women — none of them women of color — have ever held the top five executive positions.

That group includes Garrity, although the distinction isn't top of mind for her. "I don't think about it a lot," she said.

Prior to running for office, she spent 30 years in the Army and after that worked in manufacturing — both traditionally male dominated fields.

"(In the Army) we weren't divided by race, gender or religion," she said. "When I looked at people, I saw camouflage."

But she noted that when she first ran for treasurer in 2020 there "wasn't really a lot of infrastructure to help (women candidates) in the Republican Party." Plus, she was running at the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, creating other challenges.

Lack of support from the party is one of many obstacles that women candidates say they have faced. Without that structured support, many women — particularly first-time candidates — have greater difficulty on the campaign trail with things like raising money and gaining endorsements.

In 2018, an NPR analysis of Federal Election Commission filings in 67 of the most competitive Congressional districts found that women running for Congress raised an average of $500,000 less then their male counterparts.

"The two major political parties have historically ... been acting as a negative gatekeeper to women, young people and people of color in terms of recruitment and opening the doors for political life," said Chatham's Brown.

That's starting to change, she said.

In Pennsylvania, Republican women can lean on the Anne B. Anstine Series, a yearly training program that "prepares women to be more effective leaders in government," according to its website.

Democratic women have a branch of the nationwide Emerge organization that hosts workshops to help candidates learn how to run for office.

Chatham's Center for Women and Politics, a nonpartisan organization, also focuses on educational programs for women considering getting into politics. State Rep. Jessica Benham, D-Allegheny, Mayes and. Innamorato all have attended the training sessions, Brown said.

Following Donald Trump's win in the presidential election in 2016, Brown said the center saw a sizable increase in women at its sessions. In January 2017, about 170 women attended. Since then attendance has decreased to about 50 women at that January program each year.

Nationally, Dittmar said, the number of women candidates this year is down compared to 2018, when a record number were voted into office nationwide.

"After we have some success for women, we have to remember that we still have a lot of work to do," she said. "We can't rest on the success of any single, or even two election years."

Other Challenges

Money also is an issue. Women are less likely to spend their own money on campaigns, putting them at a disadvantage, according to research from the Center for American Women in Politics.

"Women just have to work 29,000 times harder in any capacity, whether it's fundraising (or) whatever it is just to exist in this (political) space," state Sen. Katie Muth, D-Chester/Montgomery/Berks, told the center as part of a research project.

"But that's why we do it, right? So that other women can exist without harm."

There still is a cultural aspect to why women don't run for office, Brown said.

"Women are still predominantly the caretakers of the family, whether it's aging parents or children," she said. This means many who do run for office tend to wait until later in life, typically after their children are grown.

"What happens then is that your political career is shorter," Brown said.

Many leadership positions in politics are based on seniority — the length of time someone has been in office. If women are waiting longer to run and aren't serving in office as long, it makes it more difficult to enter leadership roles, she said.

In 2023, more than a century after women received the right to vote, Pennsylvania lawmakers chose two women to lead both chambers of the Legislature.

The House elected its first woman speaker, Rep. Joanna McClinton D-Philadelphia, and the first woman Senate president pro tempore, Sen. Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland. McClinton is also the first Black woman to hold the position.

For women of color, the challenges of running for office are further heightened. No state has ever had a Black woman governor. Philadelphia had 99 mayors before a Black woman, Democrat Cherelle Parker, was elected last year.

In an interview McClinton did with the Center for American Women in Politics, she said other candidates are encouraged by her success.

"Although (progress) has been slow, it will begin to increase," she said in the interview. "We'll be able to get more women of color, more women of diverse backgrounds, elected as well. It is just hard in this day and age where we still have a patriarchal system; we just still have a system that's mostly white men."

(c)2024 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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