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Locally and nationally, women still struggle for political representation

When Narberth Councilor Gigi Tevlin-Moffat wore jeans to a council meeting after a day of working at the food bank she runs, a resident told her to dress more appropriately.

"There are moments when I'm like, 'Does anybody see me in the room here?" said Gigi Tevlin-Moffat, the only woman on the Narberth Borough Council.
"There are moments when I'm like, 'Does anybody see me in the room here?" said Gigi Tevlin-Moffat, the only woman on the Narberth Borough Council.Read moreJEFF FUSCO /For The Inquirer

When Narberth Councilor Gigi Tevlin-Moffat wore jeans to a council meeting after a day of working at the food bank she runs, a resident told her to dress more appropriately.

When Mary Fuller was elected to the Lansdale Borough Council in 2009, a male administrator patted her on the shoulder and wondered if "all the big numbers" confused her.

And when Haverford Township Commissioner Jane Hall introduces a new proposal, she knows one vote she'll never get - that of a commissioner from her own party who routinely opposes her because of her gender, she believes.

"He's worked against me," said Hall, the only woman on the nine-member board. Come January that board will become all male. "It was very difficult for me to deal with the fact that a man did not feel I should be in the room."

Tevlin-Moffat, Fuller, and Hall are three of the 329 women in Southeastern Pennsylvania's municipal halls who swim against the centuries-old norms that have helped shut women out of politics.

This month, voters in Pocopson Township elected an all-female Board of Supervisors - the first in Chester County memory. The only other all-female board in Philadelphia or its four surrounding Pennsylvania counties sits in Yeadon, Delaware County. Both are exceptions in a region where nearly a third of the governing boards are all-male.

An Inquirer analysis of unofficial election results in 239 municipalities in Philadelphia, Montgomery, Chester, Bucks, and Delaware Counties shows that men continue to disproportionately dominate local governments. Women make up 52 percent of the population, yet command only 25 percent of the seats on councils and boards.

Even after November's election, the status quo won't change. With 632 slots on councils, boards of supervisors, and boards of commissioners up for grabs, women gained 18 more seats. (The count does not include election results still pending.)

The issue also doesn't fall cleanly along party lines. About a third of the approximately five dozen newly elected female officials are Republicans. A little more than half are Democrats.

'I'm invisible'

In two dozen interviews with officeholders and analysts, many described a climate at the state and local level that has been slow to welcome women to the table. They acknowledge progress over decades, but still want parity - and a greater voice - in politics.

"There are moments when I'm like, 'Does anybody see me in the room here?' " said Tevlin-Moffat, the only woman on Narberth's seven-member council. "I'm in the room, [but] suddenly I'm invisible."

The local officials echo a national conversation about gender equality in government. Observers cite many reasons for the imbalance, including higher expectations for female candidates, a dearth of female political role models, and the fact that women simply run less often.

No one disputes there has been progress.

"Women have come a very, very long way," said Schuylkill Township Supervisor Barbara Cohen, who lost a bid for a state House seat in 1990.

But not as far as many had hoped.

Only one in five seats in Harrisburg is held by a woman. Among the 91 mayors serving boroughs and cities in Southeastern Pennsylvania, one in eight is female.

The disproportion has implications: Gender can influence the kinds of policies that are passed, multiple studies show, and an absence of women serving in lower offices can mean an absence of women running for higher ones.

"If men are shaping policy for women in a vacuum, we are at a deficit," said Susan Mostek, executive director of the Chester County Fund for Women and Girls, a nonprofit that runs a program to involve teen girls in community decision-making.


Some men in the region decried the absence of female officials in their meeting halls.

"It's good for government to have women in leadership positions," said Downingtown Mayor Josh Maxwell. "We need to do a better job of prioritizing getting women in these positions."

Others said the deck was not so stacked anymore.

Bill Scott, a West Chester councilman, recalled hearing sexist remarks about female candidates when he entered politics in the 1960s - "but I haven't heard that for decades."

Scott said he believed the barriers for women seeking office had disappeared.

Yet women - and the numbers - disagree.

When Leanne Krueger-Braneky was sworn in as a Pennsylvania House member in August, the political newcomer from Delaware County was ready. After two fierce campaigns for the seat, 38-year-old Krueger-Braneky - one of the youngest female state legislators - knew she would have to show colleagues she was the right person for the job.

But moments into her first day on the House floor, she said, a security guard mistook her for a staffer or an intern in the room of mostly men.

"A colleague told me afterward that the guard wanted to remove me, that he said I shouldn't be sitting there," said Krueger-Braneky, who was elected to fill a vacancy created by the resignation of Rep. Joe Hackett. "It was absolutely a gender and age thing."

For a decade before entering politics, Krueger-Braneky worked at nonprofits that advocated for small businesses. She expected the transition to the political arena to bring challenges.

"I knew it was going to be tough as a woman," said Krueger-Braneky, who first ran in 2014 for the seat. "But I have seen and experienced more sexism and misogyny in my political career than in . . . my [business] career."

At the Capitol, women account for 19 percent of legislators - a tally that ranks Pennsylvania 39th nationwide, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

That's on par with Congress, where 104 women hold 19 percent of the House and Senate seats.

That gender proportion is lower than that of the parliaments of countries including Afghanistan, Rwanda, and Ecuador, according to the World Bank. True parity for the U.S. would require electing 163 more women.

Pennsylvania and New Jersey aren't adding to that tally. There are no women in Pennsylvania's current congressional delegation; New Jersey has one, Democrat Bonnie Watson Coleman. And the Keystone State has never sent a woman to the U.S. Senate. (Democrat Katie McGinty - who is hoping to unseat incumbent Republican Pat Toomey - is trying to be the first in 2016.)

At home, Harrisburg's reputation as a man's world runs deep. Last year, former U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz hoped to become Pennsylvania's first female governor. Once considered the front-runner, she was instead soundly beaten in the Democratic primary by the lesser-known Tom Wolf.

And embattled Attorney General Kathleen Kane in particular has come down hard on the male network, blaming in part an "old boy's club" mentality for her tenuous hold on office.

"You have a pretty tightly controlled party system in Pennsylvania," said Debbie Walsh, director of the women's center at Rutgers. "The tighter the control the parties have, it makes it harder for women and people of color to break in."

Once on par with Pennsylvania, New Jersey in the last decade has become among the most progressive Northeastern states for women in elective office and now ranks 11th nationwide. Women hold 29 percent of the Assembly and Senate seats in Trenton.

Many won office after political scandals knocked out male incumbents in the early 2000s. That wave of victories, Walsh said, "was really seen as a change."

Sixty-three percent of the boards and councils in Southeastern Pennsylvania have one woman or none at all. But women are not just missing from the governing bodies; they're not even on ballots.

Some say it's simply hard to surmount a history that largely excluded women, even on the local level.

"When you think of being a township supervisor, you're talking about roads, you're talking about garbage pickup," said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College. "And for the longest time there was this sense . . . that this wasn't women's work."

Many factors

Now, part of the problem is a lack of role models to draw new female candidates, women from the region say. "When you look at these institutions and see no one like you, you say: 'That's not a place for me,' " Walsh said.

Researchers say men and women win elections at nearly identical rates. Yet out of nearly 900 candidates running this fall for council member, supervisor, or commissioner around the region, just one in four was a woman. Experts point to myriad factors for such a dearth in female candidates.

One reason: Women are more likely to need to be asked to run and to need persuading to overcome worries about qualifications or home- or career-related concerns, according to research by the Rutgers center.

Before Ricki Stumpo was elected in 2011 to Pocopson Township's board, she was the longtime township receptionist. People had been asking her to run for supervisor for years before she did it, she said.

"To work and raise a family and run a municipal government can take a lot of time," Stumpo said.

Many also say women bear the extra burden of higher expectations.

"The bar is set very high - extraordinarily high - for women," said Narberth's Tevlin-Moffat. "I always wonder: 'Why is it so different for us than it is for them?' "

While all candidates must be perceived as qualified, women must also appear likable to be elected, according to a 2012 survey published by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, a national organization for women's representation.

"We're still reading and saying things like, 'Why doesn't Carly Fiorina smile more?' or, 'Was Hillary Clinton funny enough when she was on Saturday Night Live?' " said Foundation spokeswoman Erin Souza-Rezendes. "We're still posing those questions about women that we may not be posing about men."

Moving the needle

In 1922, Martha Gibbons Thomas was among the first eight women elected to the Pennsylvania House. According to family lore, the Capitol didn't even have a women's bathroom then, Thomas' distant cousin Barbara McIlvaine Smith said.

About 80 years later, McIlvaine Smith also became a state representative.

"My generation was the first to believe that a woman could become more than a teacher or a mother or a nurse," said McIlvaine Smith, 65, a former West Chester councilwoman. "The generations after us have more of an awakening and an idea that a woman can be anything she wants to be."

Still, as women walk through the state Capitol today, men stare down at them from the walls.

Transportation Secretary Leslie Richards strolls each day past those paintings, the commonwealth's forefathers affirming her historic role as the first woman to hold her office.

"I am reminded . . . in every conference room, and wherever I sit," Richards said. "I pass the montage of pictures of former secretaries, and I am reminded as I pass all 24 men on the way to my offices."

Richards and others said there was no silver bullet for getting more women into politics - but they are striving for change. Mentoring one another, considering females for appointed positions, and raising their voices against old boys' clubs are key, many said.

Richards knows the path.

She worked her way up from Whitemarsh Township supervisor to Montgomery County commissioner to PennDot secretary.

"I'm used to being the only woman in the room," she said.