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After another ‘Year of the Woman,’ how close is Pa. to gender parity in politics? (Not very)

By January, Pennsylvania politics will be more diverse than ever before. But a woman governor? Still "sounds like Disneyland."

State Rep. Joanna McClinton, who represents parts of Philadelphia and Delaware County, is the first woman of color to be named chairperson of the House Democratic Caucus.
State Rep. Joanna McClinton, who represents parts of Philadelphia and Delaware County, is the first woman of color to be named chairperson of the House Democratic Caucus.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

When Joanna McClinton first stepped onto the floor of the Pennsylvania Senate as a staffer in 2013, she experienced something like a revelation.

“All I saw was older white men — that’s it. I was like, ‘This is who leads Pennsylvania?’ " she said recently. "I spent all those years in the courthouse as a public defender, and I’m like, No wonder! It became very clear: No wonder we have mandatory minimums. No wonder things are so flawed. No wonder I’m in court with these sentencing guidelines, and things seem so unfair.”

On Jan. 1, McClinton will be sworn in for her third term as a state representative and her first as the chairperson of the House Democratic Caucus — making her the first woman of color ever to hold the position.

It’s just one in a year of political firsts helping transform a state that has, in recent years, ranked 49th in the nation in gender parity (and that still has a long ways to go).

Pennsylvania’s 20-member congressional delegation, which had been entirely men, now counts four women, all Democrats representing swaths of the southeastern part of the state: Chrissy Houlahan, Susan Wild, Madeleine Dean, and Mary Gay Scanlon. It’s a figure all the more remarkable considering that, throughout its history, Pennsylvania has sent just seven other women to Washington.

And though just 25 percent women and 10 percent nonwhite, the General Assembly will be more diverse this term than ever before, an accomplishment that can be traced to a nationwide swell in Democratic women candidates enraged by the 2016 election, and, locally, to targeted candidate training and fund-raising initiatives designed to support them.

Women in the Pa. House

No women were elected to the 203 seats of the Pennsylvania House until the 1923 session, with eight women elected. Almost a century later, women only hold about one-quarter of House seats.

When the legislature is seated next week, it will count 18 women elected to the House for the first time, bringing the total number of women representatives to 52. And in the state Senate, five newly elected women will join seven female incumbents.

For all these firsts, though, the disparities remain gaping.

Pennsylvanians have never elected a female governor or U.S. senator. And just five women have been elected to statewide executive office.

Perhaps following suit, state lawmakers have never picked a woman to be House speaker or Senate president pro tempore (though they have selected 18 men named John for those posts), nor chosen a woman as party leader in either chamber.

Dana Brown, executive director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women in Politics at Chatham University, said that while women would ideally make up half the legislature, researchers believe government bodies should at least strive for a 30 percent threshold “in order to experience the benefits of having the gender diversity.”

“To go from 19 to 25 percent in the General Assembly is certainly an improvement,” she said, “but far from what we would like to see.”

And, to this day, some still describe Harrisburg as an old boys’ club — one that resists challenges to the status quo in ways both overt and subtle.

Allyson Y. Schwartz, who represented Philadelphia in the state Senate from 1991 to 2003, before going on to serve in Congress for a decade, said that when she walked into a room of all men in Harrisburg, she noticed they suddenly changed their tone and body language.

“They were shocked I won and did not know what to expect from me,” said Schwartz, who was one of just four women in the Senate the year she was elected. “They did not know how it would be to work with me and did not expect me to be so forceful and aggressive about issues.”

To this day, women like Sen.-elect Maria Collett — who defeated Stewart Greenleaf Jr. to take the Montgomery County seat his father, Greenleaf Sr., held for 40 years — struggle to gain institutional support.

“The truth of it was, in the beginning, I don’t think there were many people who thought I could win this seat. It had never been held by a Democrat, certainly never by a woman,” Collett said.

The party, she said, "had limited resources they wanted to put behind people they thought were winners. I had to do a lot of proving to them that, I can do this.”

‘We have to fight’

Women won the right to vote in 1920 and were off to a promising start: Three years later, voters sent eight Republican women, including three from Philadelphia, to Pennsylvania’s state House. Then, in 1925, Flora Vare, a member of a powerful Philadelphia political family, became the first woman elected to the state Senate — taking a seat previously held by her husband and brother-in-law, and holding on to it for just one term.

But progress proved halting. No other woman would be elected to the Senate until 1969. And until around that same time, the only women Pennsylvania sent to Congress, like Vare, filled vacancies caused by the deaths of their husbands.

In fact, Pennsylvania politicos would not talk of another “year of the woman” until 1984, and that one was a washout: All women candidates for Congress and statewide office in Pennsylvania lost. In 1991, there was inching progress, as the number of women in the state Senate doubled — to a grand total of four.

Since then, both parties have struggled to elevate women within the party apparatus and leadership, which can deter women from running, said Kelly Dittmar, a professor of political science at Rutgers University in Camden. One of the most recent examples of a female rising star in Pennsylvania politics was former Attorney General Kathleen Kane, who last month began a 10- to 23-month jail sentence after a criminal conviction.

In the General Assembly, which Brown noted tends to elevate members based on seniority, women, who often run for office later in their careers, have less time to amass power and get left behind.

Rep. Mary Jo Daley, a Montgomery County Democrat, said part of the problem in the past has been a lack of infrastructure. In 2015, after a slew of women ran for state legislative office and lost, she and then-Rep. Tina Davis began raising money to start a state chapter of Emerge, a candidate-training program for Democratic women.

“We have to fight,” Daley said. “There’s nobody, not a man or a woman as far as I’m concerned, who’s going to say, ‘Oh, honey, you take that seat.’ Women have to be prepared.”

The very first year, Emerge PA counted its first success: Carolyn Comitta, who won a Chester County seat in the state House in 2016. The next year, eight Emerge graduates ran for local office and won. And this year, the program sent five more women to the state House and three to the Senate.

There has also been a shift in how women raise money. Sen.-elect Katie Muth, an Emerge alumna, brought in tens of thousands from out-of-state progressive groups like Red2Blue and Flippable to defeat Republican incumbent John Rafferty in the western suburbs — but has griped publicly that the Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Campaign Committee wasn’t showing the kind of early support it would to a male candidate.

She said the establishment fund-raising arms are “just not equipped” to support candidates who aren’t self-funded.

“I hope to God women take over the party,” she said, “because otherwise we just spin in a circle of golf outing fund-raisers and white male privilege.”

Fund-raising concerns have spurred the growth of Represent PA, a political action committee supporting Democratic women in state races.

“The real barrier for women is getting the powers that be, the gatekeepers, to accept the fact they can win,” said Christine Jacobs, executive director of the PAC.

In 2014 and 2016, the group struggled to bring in donations, Jacobs said. “So what we did for this cycle was we went back to: How do women raise money?”

They started with informational events, about issues like education, the environment, and criminal justice, then asked women they engaged to host “friend-raisers” to bring in more donors. As a result, more than 70 percent of their donors were first-time campaign contributors, raising $200,000 collectively for state races. For some women, Represent PA kicked in the first big check — enough to kick-start a candidacy.

“They said: ‘With this money, I can pay for my first two mailings. With this money, I can go to the party and say, I am a real candidate. I raised $5,000.’ ”

For the next election, Jacobs’ goal is to get checks into women’s hands even earlier.

“We had several women candidates talk to us about when they decided to run they were told: ‘No, dear, it’s not your turn. We have a guy for that seat.’ So it helps the women to say, ‘We’ve already raised x dollars from Represent, and I have access to money you don’t have, so you should support me.' ”

Twenty-three Represent-endorsed candidates will take office Jan. 1.

Women also had to develop a superior ground game: Collett personally knocked on 5,000 doors, while canvassers knocked on 135,000 more in her district, taking advantage of a year when Democratic volunteers turned out in unprecedented numbers.

“Volunteers were much more invested in getting to the door and telling your story than if we had done a paid canvass, for example," Collett said. "… I think that’s what got voters to recognize there was someone on the ballot worth turning out for.”

Daley is hoping those numbers will make it easier to gain traction for issues she thinks are critical to improving women’s lives, from pay equity to women’s health.

Up until now, she said, “it’s really hard to get even bills that seem like, ‘Why would anyone have an objection to that?’ to get them passed or even brought up in a committee for a vote. I do think we are underrepresented as a gender, and I think our voices at the table are incredibly important for the women of Pennsylvania.”

Dittmar said results in Pennsylvania followed national trends: Success among women was condensed within the Democratic Party. Of the five new women elected to the state Senate, three are Democrats. Of the 18 new women elected to the House, 11 are Democrats.

One of them, Rep.-elect Christina Sappey, who worked as a legislative aide for more than a decade, said she understands her party does not control the legislative agenda — the GOP has been the majority since mid-'90s — but the Chester County Democrat is “heartened by coalitions," the prospect of working with other freshman women on shared priorities.

McClinton sees that shift in the status quo as the start of something even bigger.

"It’s getting us geared up and ready to one day have a woman governor. It sounds like Disneyland right now, but these are the types of things that we should have as real options for daughters growing up in this state.”