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Pennsylvania politics: It's a guy thing

WHEN IT COMES to electing women to political office, a growing number of states - even some of the reddest and most socially conservative - are aligning with Venus in 2010.

Meg Whitman, GOP nominee for California governor, applauds as Carly Fiorina speaks June 9 after winning the party's nomination for U.S. Senate. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
Meg Whitman, GOP nominee for California governor, applauds as Carly Fiorina speaks June 9 after winning the party's nomination for U.S. Senate. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)Read more

WHEN IT COMES to electing women to political office, a growing number of states - even some of the reddest and most socially conservative - are aligning with Venus in 2010.

Pennsylvania remains lost on Mars.

With powerful echoes of 1992's "Year of the Woman" in American politics, the nation watched Tuesday as two female high-tech millionaires captured the top spots on California's GOP ticket, women won hotly contested primaries for U. S. Senate nods in Nevada and Arkansas and the statehouse in South Carolina.

But here in the Keystone State, a six-way debate before last month's gubernatorial primary was as badly in need of a woman's touch as the decor of a frat house basement taproom.

Not only were there no females seeking the governor's mansion, but only one of four U.S. Senate seekers - frequent GOP also-ran Peg Luksik - was a woman, and she lost with 18 percent of the vote.

That's standard operating procedure around these parts. Pennsylvania has never had a female governor nor a woman in the U.S. Senate, and only two of 19 current House members are women, below the average for the other states. And there's never been a female mayor of Philadelphia.

The Center for Women and American Politics at Rutgers University ranks Pennsylvania 45th in percentage of female state lawmakers. The only states with a worse rating are, in order, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Oklahoma, and South Carolina.

But even in South Carolina a woman, state lawmaker Nikki Haley, is the front-runner in the governor's race despite having to fight back allegations - which she strongly denied - of adultery as well as slurs on her Sikh heritage.

Why is Pennsylvania such a tramp when it comes to electing ladies?

"I think the state's pretty conservative, and that makes it hard for women to break through that glass ceiling," said Mary Ellen Balchunis, a La Salle University political scientist active in Democratic politics in Delaware County.

But Balchunis and other experts say there's no single, one-stop explanation for the paucity of women in Pennsylvania politics. Instead, they cite a combination of factors - including social conservatism, strong political parties that discourage outsiders, as well as election laws that favor the old guard.

In 1999, then-Philadelphia City Councilwoman Happy Fernandez made headlines when she resigned to become the first major female candidate for mayor in city history. She placed fourth out of five major candidates - and in the next two elections there were no significant female candidates.

"Women candidates are not able to find enough of a cohesive base" in Philadelphia, said Fernandez, who today is president of Moore College of Art & Design.

She explained that there tends to be a kind of tribal nature to politics - both in the city and elsewhere in Pennsylvania - in which figures like now-disgraced ex-state Sen. Vince Fumo or former U.S. Rep. Bill Gray created tight networks that limited newcomers.

Allyson Lowe, who once ran the Pennsylvania Center for Women, Politics, and Public Policy and now heads the political science department at Pittsburgh's Carlow University, said the rural nature of much of central and north Pennsylvania is a factor holding women back from politics.

While females do tend to be active in these communities, Lowe explained, it's more likely in church or parent groups than politics. It is the cities that tend to produce more of the type of female professionals, like attorneys, who might seek elected office.

Yet in Pennsylvania, the larger cities have strong, entrenched political machines that have not been very welcoming to women.

One local trailblazer has been U.S. Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz from Jenkintown, who became one of only two female state senators when she was first elected in 1990. In 2000, she finished second in a five-way Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate.

In theory, Schwartz noted, there should be some advantages to running as a woman, that a female can "convey the feeling that you have empathy for some of the realities in people's lives and that maybe you'll be independent from the party structure."

But the system in Pennsylvania can undercut those assets. "We have tight party discipline, and a tighter electoral system than some other states," noted Schwartz.

Indeed, experts like Lowe say that Pennsylvania's sometimes outdated election laws are also clearly a factor that impede women. Most notably, women have done well with independent voters in other states, but Pennsylvania's closed primaries - limited only to party members - make it harder for mavericks to reach the general election.

Lowe also pointed out that many other states have part-time legislatures with lower pay than Pennsylvania, which are factors that could make those offices less attractive to men and more appealing to women, especially ones active in raising a family.

She cited the example of Maryland, which borders Pennsylvania but where lawmakers are only in session for several months a year. That state's legislature is nearly 31 percent female, or double the number in Pennsylvania.

"There are a lot of teachers in the legislature in Maryland," said Lowe, "because there's a state law that they don't have to give up their jobs."

Female pundits and politicians agree that women seeking elective office face the same obstacles that they must deal with in other high-profile professions, including the pressure to defer even running until child-rearing duties are over.

The problems in Pennsylvania are also somewhat self-perpetuating - the state Legislature is typically a training ground for higher office, which means the low percentage of women in Harrisburg continues to make it less likely that they will ascend to Congress or the governor's mansion.

But that still doesn't explain why in 2010 even states such as South Carolina are looking to break down the kind of gender barriers that are still solidly entrenched here.

Lowe noted that two of the most talked-out victories by women last week - Republican primary wins in California for Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, and ex-eBay boss Meg Whitman - may not be relevant to anywhere else. She noted that both came from the state's high-tech Silicon Valley - a friendly place for female entrepreneurs - and were each able to spend millions of dollars they earned there on their campaigns.

In fact, it has been conservative Republican women who've pulled off some of the biggest surprises in 2010, especially Nevada GOP far-right Senate nominee Sharron Angle, who'd like to abolish the Department of Education and voted against flouride in that state's drinking water.

Some experts believe the rise of conservative women may be closely tied to the growing role in politics of the Internet and especially social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, which have broken down longstanding barriers to entering poltical life. Surely, many were also inspired by the 2008 rise of Sarah Palin in the GOP and Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Party.

Again, it's not clear why those trends have bypassed the Keystone State. Ironically, that so-called first "Year of the Woman" in 1992 was rooted in Pennsylvania, thanks to anger over the treatment in the Senate of Anita Hill, the sexual-harassment accuser of then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

Fury over Sen. Arlen Specter's questioning of Hill inspired a novice Senate candidate named Lynn Yeakel, who nearly defeated him and inspired predictions of breakthroughs for female Pennsylvanians to come. But 18 years later, women here are still waiting for the glass ceiling to fall.