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.
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.
â€œWhen myself and Sen. Conrad were both elected and we were in our twenties, Sen. Conradâ€™s mom overheard a senatorâ€™s wife complaining that Danielle and I didnâ€™t belong there,â€ McGill said.â€œI donâ€™t know if it was our age, or the fact that we werenâ€™t married yet and didnâ€™t have families, or our gender, I donâ€™t know what it was. But there are still people out there who donâ€™t believe that the legislature is a place for a woman.â€
Historically, when it comes to womenâ€™s political power in Nebraska, there hasnâ€™t been much. Three members of the stateâ€™s Congressional delegation have been women â€“ out of 128. Deb Fischer, if she wins her current race for a U.S. Senate seat, would make four.
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.
â€œItâ€™s just ridiculous that â€¦ at least 51 percent of our population is female, and such a low percent of elected representatives are female,â€ said Linda Duckworth, president of the League of Women Voters of Nebraska.
But why arenâ€™t more women attaining elected positions? After all, studies show that when women run for office, theyâ€™re just as likely to be elected as men, so itâ€™s not voter discrimination.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln associate professor Dr. Alice Kang studies womenâ€™s political representation around the world. She said there are several main barriers to increasing womenâ€™s political participation in the U.S.
The first is recruitment.
â€œMost people enter into politics through the encouragement of someone whoâ€™s already involved in a political party,â€ she said. â€œAnd recruitment, scholars have found, tends to be gendered. So if youâ€™re a man in a leadership position in any party, youâ€™re more likely to know other men and socialized with other men and work with other men.
â€œIf youâ€™re looking for someone to join your party, youâ€™re more likely to appeal to a fellow man.â€
And when women are asked, theyâ€™re much more likely to self-disqualify, Kang said. Even with the same standard qualifications â€“ a law degree, owning a small business â€“ women are much less likely than men to feel theyâ€™re equipped for public office.
McGill agreed. She said women find lots of â€œlittle reasonsâ€ why they canâ€™t run.
â€œThose of us who are in office, those of us women, have the same insecurities and fears,â€ she said. â€œWe just pushed through them.â€
A third barrier is the United Statesâ€™ 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 itâ€™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. doesnâ€™t already have such quotas in place makes us rare, Kang said; an outlier.
â€œMore than 100 countries actually have gender quotas to get more women into office,â€ she said. â€œFor example, Senegal adopted a 50-50 law: so for every man in office, there must be a woman.
â€œThe laws vary a lot,â€ she continued. â€œIn 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.â€
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 isnâ€™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? Whatâ€™s the difference?
For one, at least in Nebraska, increasing its number of women candidates isnâ€™t really a priority for the Republican Party.
â€œI 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,â€ said Jordan McGrain, executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party.
On the other hand, Nebraska Democratic Womenâ€™s Caucus Chair Mary Herres called bringing more women into politics â€œvital.â€ She pointed to the Democratic Partyâ€™s affirmative action policies regarding delegates at this yearâ€™s national convention.
â€œWomen were out in strong force in Charlotte this year,â€ she said, â€œand our voices are being heard.â€
State Sen. Kathy Campbell, a registered Republican, has been in politics for most of the last 26 years. Sheâ€™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 sheâ€™s pro-choice, Campbell said she disagrees with the idea that whatâ€™s being termed a GOP â€œwar on womenâ€ has driven more women to the ranks of Democrats recently.
â€œOver time, if thereâ€™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,â€ she said. â€œBut for right now, I think it tracks more historically.â€
Campbell and McGill said theyâ€™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, itâ€™s too early to tell.
UNLâ€™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 shouldnâ€™t be afraid to step forward and seek office.
â€œNot 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 maleâ€™s perspective and view on life.â€
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