Stateline Story

No 'Year of the Woman' in 2004 Elections

  • November 10, 2004
  • By Alison L. McConnell

Fewer women ran for state political office this year and the percentage of women in state legislatures stayed flat despite some noteworthy successes results that add up to a worrisome trend in the view of political activists.

"It's leveled off, unfortunately," said Pat Carpenter, president of The WISH List, a Washington, D.C. group that searches for promising pro-choice and female Republicans to connect with fundraising and campaign training.

"We did see a decline. Women are pulled in a number of different directions. More and more have gotten involved in the workforce, outside the home. They aren't pulled toward the political arena."

Preliminary election results indicate that women will hold at least seven of 50 governorships and 1,652 of the 7,382 seats in state legislatures next year. Those totals may be affected by the outcome of undecided races in Idaho, Michigan, Montana, New York and Washington, but the percentage of female representation in statehouses will likely remain steady at about 22% a proportion right in line with that of the past five years, according to the Women's Legislative Network.

According to the Center for American Women and Politics, 2,207 female Republican and Democratic candidates ran for state legislative office this year. That's 21 less than the 2,228 who ran in 2000 and 163 off the "Year of the Woman" record mark 2,370 set in 1992.

Two years ago, 10 women vied for governor posts, tying another record from 1992. Only three major-party female gubernatorial hopefuls were up for election this year.

As of Wednesday, Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner (D) was the only woman who won. Missouri State Auditor Claire McCaskill (D) was narrowly defeated by Secretary of State Matt Blunt (R) on Nov. 2, and Washington state still awaits results from the hotly-contested race between Christine Gregoire (D) and Dino Rossi (R). The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported today that Rossi was leading by more than 2,000 votes.

"At the state level, we didn't have as many candidates," said Marie C. Wilson, president of The White House Project, a New York-based nonprofit that trains potential female candidates. "We've been stuck for last ten years at the same level. We didn't have a real big group of governors running."

There were legislative and executive branch gains in several states that have a history of unequal representation. For instance, Cherie Berry (R), who in 2000 became the first female Republican elected to statewide office in North Carolina, won a second term as labor commissioner.

Three women hold statewide executive office in Missouri for the first time: Robin Carnahan (D), secretary of state; Sarah Steelman (R), state treasurer; and McCaskill, who will remain state auditor after her unsuccessful bid for governor.

And as newly-elected state legislatures picked leaders in the days after Nov. 2, women snagged several top positions. Lisa Brown (D) was chosen as the second female majority leader in the Washington state Senate and Joan Fitz-Gerald (D) was picked to be Colorado's first female state Senate president. The Women's Legislative Network said 41 women held state legislative leadership positions in 2004, down from 42 in 2003.

Those selections were in keeping with a history of support for female candidates in certain states. In 2003, Washington, Colorado, Maryland and Oregon had the highest proportions of women legislators in the country, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Washington's 36.7% topped the list, followed by Colorado's 34%, Maryland's 33% and Oregon's 31.1%.

In fact, if Gregoire is elected, Washington's female politicians would make history this year: That would make the state's top three officials its governor and two U.S. senators, Patty Murray (D) and Maria Cantwell (D) female. Incumbent Murray defended her seat from challenger George Nethercutt (R) by a 10-point margin (54%44%) on Nov. 2, and Cantwell's seat is safe until 2006.

Some states seem less willing to support female candidates. Delaware, Iowa, Mississippi, New Hampshire, and Vermont have never elected a woman to U.S. Congress. That trend went unbroken this year when Iowan Joyce Schulte (D) lost to incumbent Steve King (R) in a U.S. House race and U.S. Senate candidate Doris "Granny D" Haddock was defeated by incumbent Judd Gregg (R) in New Hampshire.

All 50 states have elected at least one woman to their state legislatures, but Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, and South Carolina have the lowest rates of female representation, according to NCSL. In 2003, South Carolina had the lowest, at 9.4 percent.

"There is a built-in reservation about women who run, how they're viewed by the press and the general public," WISH's Carpenter said. "They still ask questions like, Who's taking care of your children?'"

Most states have never elected a female governor. Going into this election, a record-setting nine held the office: Minner, Janet Napolitano (Arizona), M. Jodi Rell (Connecticut), Linda Lingle (Hawaii), Kathleen Sebelius (Kansas), Kathleen Blanco (Louisiana), Jennifer Granholm (Michigan), Judy Martz (Montana) and Olene Walker (Utah). Four Lingle, Martz, Rell, and Walker are Republicans, the rest Democrats.

Only seven will now remain or eight if Gregoire wins. Walker lost in Utah's Republican primary and Martz opted not to run for re-election after her popularity headed south last year. Both were replaced by men on Nov. 2 Brian Schweitzer (D) in Montana and Jon Huntsman (R) in Utah. The 2004 elections bring the total number of female governors to 28 since 1925, according to the National Governors Association.

Studies have not shown clear differences in the success rates of female and male candidates. In fact, according to the Center for American Women and Politics, when women run in competitive districts without entrenched Democratic or Republican voting blocs they win at the same rates as men.

Kentucky state Senator-elect Denise Harper Angel (D), the property valuation administrator of Jefferson County, said her seven campaigns for elected office have rarely focused on her status as a woman. "I had good name recognition and a record of accomplishment over 30 years," she said.

Those local or county-level records of accomplishment may be crucial for female candidates. According to Carpenter, about 70 percent of officials elected to U.S. Congress serve in lower elected positions first. Given that, she said, WISH, along with other grassroots political groups, such as The White House Project, are making an effort to "build the bench" of female officials at state and local levels. "They're the ones that will move up," she said.

"It will start in the states," The White House Project's Wilson said. "We have to figure out how we take women through those executive offices [such as] attorney general, insurance commissioner, state treasurer. Those are the places that are pipelines to executive leadership."