Nebraska women face partisan gap in politics


October 3rd, 2012

Lincoln, NE – Lincoln, NE – Nebraska women continue to be under-represented in state office. But the reasons are far more complex than voter discrimination.

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Nebraska State Sen. Amanda McGill was 26 years old when she was first elected to the legislature in 2006; Sen. Danielle Conrad was elected the same year at age 29.

“When myself and Sen. Conrad were both elected and we were in our twenties, Sen. Conrad’s mom overheard a senator’s wife complaining that Danielle and I didn’t belong there,” McGill said.

Sen. Amanda McGill was elected to the Nebraska Legislature at age 26, and represents Lincoln-based District 26. (Courtesy photo)

“I don’t know if it was our age, or the fact that we weren’t married yet and didn’t have families, or our gender, I don’t know what it was. But there are still people out there who don’t believe that the legislature is a place for a woman.”

Historically, when it comes to women’s political power in Nebraska, there hasn’t been much. Three members of the state’s Congressional delegation have been women – out of 128. Deb Fischer, if she wins her current race for a U.S. Senate seat, would make four.

Sen. Danielle Conrad is also a Lincoln-based senator, representing District 46, and was elected at age 29. (Courtesy photo)

Only one woman has been governor: Kay Orr, who defeated Helen Boosalis 25 years ago. A woman has never been speaker of the legislature. After steady increases, the number of female state senators peaked in 1997 at 13 out of 49, and now has declined to 11.

“It’s just ridiculous that … at least 51 percent of our population is female, and such a low percent of elected representatives are female,” said Linda Duckworth, president of the League of Women Voters of Nebraska.

But why aren’t more women attaining elected positions? After all, studies show that when women run for office, they’re just as likely to be elected as men, so it’s not voter discrimination.


University of Nebraska-Lincoln associate professor Dr. Alice Kang studies women’s political representation around the world. She said there are several main barriers to increasing women’s political participation in the U.S.

The first is recruitment.

“Most people enter into politics through the encouragement of someone who’s already involved in a political party,” she said. “And recruitment, scholars have found, tends to be gendered. So if you’re a man in a leadership position in any party, you’re more likely to know other men and socialized with other men and work with other men.

“If you’re looking for someone to join your party, you’re more likely to appeal to a fellow man.”

And when women are asked, they’re much more likely to self-disqualify, Kang said. Even with the same standard qualifications – a law degree, owning a small business – women are much less likely than men to feel they’re equipped for public office.

McGill agreed. She said women find lots of “little reasons” why they can’t run.

“Those of us who are in office, those of us women, have the same insecurities and fears,” she said. “We just pushed through them.”

A third barrier is the United States’ winner-take-all political system, where one representative is elected per district instead of citizens voting for their top three or top five favorite candidates. Kang said this means the stakes for individual candidates are really high, and so parties are reluctant to go against the status quo.

While it’s unlikely our political system will change anytime soon, Kang said an easy way to counteract that status quo mentality is through quotas. The fact the U.S. doesn’t already have such quotas in place makes us rare, Kang said; an outlier.

“More than 100 countries actually have gender quotas to get more women into office,” she said. “For example, Senegal adopted a 50-50 law: so for every man in office, there must be a woman.

“The laws vary a lot,” she continued. “In Great Britain, the Labor Party has committed itself to making one-third of the candidates be women. A party can voluntarily adopt an affirmative action policy.”

The partisan gap

Right now in the U.S., another factor seems to have a big impact on women running for office: party registration. The Nebraska Legislature is officially nonpartisan, but almost all senators are registered members of one of the two major parties, and the balance is heavily Republican.

By contrast, among the eleven female senators, seven are registered Democrat; only four are registered Republican.

That means almost half the registered Democrats are female, while only 12 percent of registered Republicans are. This partisan gap among women politicians isn’t limited to Nebraska. Nationally, 60 percent of women state legislators are Democrats, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. And in Congress, 12 of the 17 women senators are Democrats; 49 of the 73 female Representatives are.
But why? What’s the difference?

For one, at least in Nebraska, increasing its number of women candidates isn’t really a priority for the Republican Party.

“I think to focus on this perceived gender gap is not terribly relevant to the types of work we do and the types of candidates we attract,” said Jordan McGrain, executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party.
On the other hand, Nebraska Democratic Women’s Caucus Chair Mary Herres called bringing more women into politics “vital.” She pointed to the Democratic Party’s affirmative action policies regarding delegates at this year’s national convention.

“Women were out in strong force in Charlotte this year,” she said, “and our voices are being heard.”

State Sen. Kathy Campbell, a registered Republican, has been in politics for most of the last 26 years. She’s serving her second term in the Nebraska legislature and chairs the influential Health and Human Services committee. Campbell said the Democratic Party focuses more on grassroots activism and coalition building, which might appeal more to women.

Noting that she’s pro-choice, Campbell said she disagrees with the idea that what’s being termed a GOP “war on women” has driven more women to the ranks of Democrats recently.

“Over time, if there’s not a change in terms of more acceptance of the moderate view, you might say, on social issues, then you may see a gravitation of women to the Democratic Party or as an independent,” she said. “But for right now, I think it tracks more historically.”

Campbell and McGill said they’re actively involved in trying to get more women to enter politics. Studies in other states have shown term limits result in increased female political participation, though in Nebraska, it’s too early to tell.

UNL’s Kang said the biggest changes can come from women themselves, mobilizing within their parties to demand more representation.

In the end, McGill said, women are more qualified than they might think, and they shouldn’t be afraid to step forward and seek office.

“Not everybody has a law degree. Not everyone owns a business,” she said. “And you want all types of people represented and all backgrounds.

“Women need to learn to embrace their backgrounds and their unique perspectives on life, and realize that that is just as valuable as a male’s perspective and view on life.”


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