Where the girls aren't

Editorial Notebook

January 20, 2007|By Karen Hosler

Two Baltimore natives scored historic breakthroughs this month when Sheila Dixon was sworn in as the city's first female mayor in its more than 200 years and Nancy Pelosi became the first woman to wield the gavel as speaker of the U.S. House.

Celebrations must by tempered, though, by the recognition that both are anomalies. Women remain woefully underrepresented in this country's corridors of power.

Despite recent gains in Washington, women make up only 16 percent of Congress, and actually lost five seats in Annapolis, where distaff members of the General Assembly number one-third. The nation overall has so few women in political office relative to their slight majority share of the population that the United States ranked 22nd out of 115 in a gender gap study by the World Economic Forum

Baltimore, with women now in all the top jobs and holding nearly half the City Council seats, is a rare bastion of gender equality - though Ms. Dixon, as City Council president, assumed the vacancy left by Gov. Martin O'Malley and must win election in her own right this fall to stay on as mayor.

Nearly a century since American women won the right to vote, and a decade and a half since the 1992 "year of the woman" elections seemed to open a gender floodgate, female candidates are still held back by a political, economic and cultural system that works against them.

The political system discourages newcomers - particularly at the congressional level, where district lines are tailored to protect incumbents. When open seats become available, they often go to party favorites or legacy candidates, such as retired Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes' son, John, a first-time office-seeker who won Maryland's 3rd District seat last year with the enormous help of his father's name and political connections.

Thus, relatively progressive Maryland, where women once held half of the state's eight seats in the House, now has an all-male House delegation. Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski is the only woman to whom Marylanders can appeal as constituents.

A further complication is economic: Women are often reluctant to enter politics at an age early enough to work up through the ranks of government because they can't take on more work while holding down a full-time job and raising children. As wives, single mothers or childless professionals trying to make a mark, they tend to put off running for office until other burdens lessen.

The impact is obvious in state legislatures, where women tend to be a decade or more older than their male colleagues, with three-fourths over age 50, according to the Center for Women and Politics at Rutgers University. By the time they have developed a record that can be used as a launching pad for Congress, female legislators may be in their 60s and not willing or able to wage as competitive a race as a 40-year-old.

What's more, organizations dedicated to recruiting and electing female candidates have learned that women don't approach the prospect of elective office as aggressively as men do. "They want to be asked to run," rather than just putting themselves forward as men are inclined to do, said Ellen R. Malcolm, president of Emily's List, which backs Democratic women favoring abortion rights.

Republicans as well as Democrats are alarmed that the percentage of female office-holders flat-lined in recent years. Gender matters: to voters, to policy, to approach. Most female office-holders are Democrats, but even within the Democratic Party, women don't speak with one voice. They speak differently than men, though, drawing on different experiences and different perspectives. Women need to have at least some women representing them in government.

Other nations have been better at electing women to power because they have parliamentary systems in which the parties choose candidates, sometimes even setting quotas for women. That wouldn't work here. But a political system that's so good at taking care of its own should make a greater effort to cut women in on the deal.

Mayor Dixon and Speaker Pelosi are now in a position to make that happen.

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