Wednesday, April 06, 2011

MA Women Pols - 8 Times?

Data careered about Suffolk Law today as the Women in Politics: Challenges and Trends panel started. The inferences were obvious, quite possibly useful in the necessity the panelists seemed to concur on — getting more women elected in MA is going to require well crafted strategies by the political parties and others, as well as a long view of perhaps a decade or more.
Usual Plug: This was yet another in the splendid series by Suffolk's Rappaport Center. They present a consistently thought provoking series of public policy lunchtime programs.
Unusual Pointer: The pretty mild but relentless male bashing by the panel — to resounding applause and laughter of the almost entirely female audience — deserves a separate post. I'll link here when it goes up. It is only remarkable because the entire panel, including the moderator, plus the head of the center played, while they damned female bashing.
We are in the national middle in terms of percentage of women pols — 23rd in the country. Most of the figures to start the discussion came from panelist Leanne Doherty. She is assistant professor of American politics at Simmons College and author of Level Playing Field for All?: Female Political Leadership and Athletics, based on her dissertation. She is active in helping young women enter politics.

While we like to think of ourselves as diverse and open here, we presently have a single woman in Congress and overall 23.5% in legislative office. The highest was 26%.

So while WCVB reporter Janet Wu moderated with a range of questions, all seemed to come down to two angles — why so few and how can it improve? Along with Doherty on the panel were three women MA pols:
Oddly enough, party affiliation was not too important today. For the record, Walz is a Democrat and Healey and O'Connell Republicans.

A Little Great News

The status of MA women pols seemed at best static and overall pretty grim. The most upbeat stat was that women who do run for office are just as likely as men to win.

That was much more than counterbalanced by the fact that election after election, far fewer women run. To the three who had run and won, the reasons for that disparity were numerous and obvious.

To outsiders, the immediate question might be whether the two major parties discriminated against women, discouraged them from running, and did not support them when they decided to go for it. That not what Healey, Walz and O'Connell had found though. In fact, Healey was quick to dispute that, piling on that the MA GOP had three female state chairs, including herself in the past decade.

Instead, they started from an eye-opening stat from Doherty. On average, a party has to ask a potential female candidate eight times before she agrees to run for office. For a male, a single request is all it takes.

Moreover, she said later that a typical age for a woman to run the first time is 45. For a man it is in his mid-20s. Some of this is cultural/biological in women raising kids before entering politics, even at the town level. It also has the unfortunate effect of once they are elected that the women will not have the tenures and steps on political office ladders to achieve high ranks. Thus, as Wu put it, "How many Terry Murrays are there in Massachusetts?" referring to the president of the state Senate.

In particular, MA is a very expensive place to run a campaign. That is not likely to change any time soon. An implication is that women pols who start earlier have more chances over greater periods to plug into political and funding networks. Great fund-raisers tend to win more often.

Asked about their personal motivations for running, the three elected pols spoke of how terrifying the prospect was, whether they took a long time to get in a race or as in O'Connell's case were ready quickly when key issues became obvious.

With her usual wit, Walz compared running to going on "a blind date with 40,000 people." She said it took her years to get her self-esteem primed to put herself out for office.

The others had personal motivations but agreed with the emotional preparation. O'Connell started working to pass Jessica's law, and then found other causes that inspired her. Healey said she has researched and published massive policy papers, but found "I never saw any change" after the powerful pols got the reports. O'Connell said she then won on her first go, while Healey said she "got mushed" in her first two tries before becoming GOP chair and then Lt. Gov.

They all said it is a big risk to expose yourself, particularly when the conventional wisdom is that you'll lose a few times before winning. Yet as Healey put it, "It's a big risk to take the leap and risk losing again and again and again." She later added that yes the odds are against first-time candidates, male or female, but that for women the bigger risk is not running at all.

In the Game

As part of her drive to get more elected women her, Healey's Political Parity aims to get more to run, regardless of party affiliation. That includes "the asking piece," identifying possible candidates and getting them interested. Then there is helping them feel qualified, inspiring their confidence. Then there is the impact of the media, which she called "a blood sport here."

None of the pols said she had be the subject of unfair media attacks. However, they and Wu had examples of how broadcast and print can skew stories. They may ask questions of women they do not of men, such as why don't they have children and if they do, will their kids suffer if they run and if they win. Moreover, they cited such women as Hilary Clinton when she was running for President in 2008 and was sometimes depicted as cold or brutal for appearing strong.

As Walz put it, "There is a very narrow range of acceptable behavior for women." Showing the same strengths or passions or other emotions as a man, they might alternately be called cold (or worse) or weak if they dare to choke up over a powerful issue.

Healey added that "If you inhabit this very safe will you ever be charismatic?" The powerful personality tends to get people elected.

As an aside almost, Walz had special warnings about social media, such as Twitter and Facebook. From her own campaign experiences, she found that some people are nastier there than anyone on a newspaper or TV news program.

Same But Different

Fielding more women candidates will take some time and several different approaches, said the panel. For that media part, Healey and Walz in particular urged calling people on comments, questions and analyses that are off base.

A resource for doing this the Name It. Change It project. It aims to identify media sexism, call it out and thereby reduce it.

Mid-term and longer, Walz called for helping women advance by:
  • Training them
  • Mentoring them
  • Helping them learn fund-raising
She asked rhetorically what if rather than bemoaning the lack of women candidates, "what if we actually had a plan in place?"

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