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Why Aren't More Women Running for Office?

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Perry Bennett
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West Virginia Legislative Photography
Sen. Sue Cline speaks with Sen. Donna Boley during a 2016 interim meeting. Cline and Boley were the only two female Senators during the 2016 Legislative Session.

In West Virginia politics over the past decade, one trend gets a lot of attention: the trend from blue to red. More statewide and federal offices in West Virginia are held by Republicans after this year’s election than have been in decades.

 

But there’s another trend-- one that can be seen nationwide--that’s also apparent in West Virginia elections.

When lawmakers return to Charleston in February, just 18 of the 134 members of the West Virginia Legislature will be women, about 13 percent.

"Theoretically, if our Legislature was representative, there would be more women than men in the Legislature,” Stacey North, chair of the West Virginia Women's Commission, said. “We’ve gone backwards as far as the number of female representatives we have had.”

In 1990, twenty- nine women of both parties held seats in the state House of Delegates and Senate, the highest in the state's history, but since, the number has declined.

And West Virginia isn’t alone. Nationwide, the number of women holding public office is also stagnating.

So, why the trend?

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Credit Roxy Todd / West Virginia Public Broadcasting
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West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Patricia Rucker, right, with her daughter. Rucker will be one of three women in the West Virginia Senate during the 2017 session.

“When women run for office, they win at about the same rate as men do in comparable races," Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University said, "but what we’ve been seeing in fact is not only is there stagnation in the number of women office holders, but also in the number of women running for state legislatures.”

Walsh said there are multiple barriers for women considering a run for office, both real and perceived.

Politically-minded women tend to come from careers that are less lucrative, like teaching or social work, and their colleagues and friends are less likely to be able to donate big dollars to their campaigns.

Then there’s that fact that, even in 2016, women are still seen as the primary caregivers in their homes. Kids, Walsh said, can stunt a woman’s political career because many wait until their children are grown before putting their name on the ballot.

“So women run when they’re older and their trajectory in politics is that much shorter than a man who might run in his late 20s or early 30s," Walsh said. "If you have that longer runway, you can go further in the electoral system."

Walsh said her organization’s research also shows that women run for office when they are recruited by a community or local party leader, but they are much less likely to be approached than men.

Many women get involved in groups that may be stepping stones to political office because they want to effect change for one particular policy issue. Those same women, however, don’t often see elected offices, like Congress, as a place where they can make a difference in the areas they’re passionate about.  

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Credit Perry Bennett / West Virginia Legislative Photography
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West Virginia Legislative Photography
Del. Kelli Sobonya will be one of 15 women serving in the House of Delegates during the 2017 session.

And then there’s sexism, a barrier that’s looming large in the minds of many Americans after this year’s presidential election cycle.

During the first presidential debate in October, President-elect Donald Trump said his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton didn't "the stamina" to be president. The comment wasn't the first, nor the last, made during the campaign cycle that was considered sexist. Trump often attacked Clinton’s looks and was caught on tape condoning sexual assault.

Some worry that the tenor of the presidential race will become just one more reason for women not to run for public office.

“I hope it emboldens them," North said, disagreeing with the notion.

"I would hope that women can look at this election and say, that wasn’t right. Whether they supported Hillary Clinton or not, a lot of what was thrown her way and a lot of the statements that were made by President Elect-Trump are not acceptable and it’s up to women to make sure that it doesn’t become acceptable.”

The West Virginia Women’s Commission is working to remove many of those barriers for women in the state, recruiting more female candidates and expanding their education efforts to women and girls in high school and college.

North said she will also encourage Governor-elect Jim Justice to appoint women to state boards and commissions, which she says is where women can begin to shape policy before moving on to other offices where they can create it. 

Ashton Marra covers the Capitol for West Virginia Public Radio and can be heard weekdays on West Virginia Morning, the station’s daily radio news program. Ashton can also be heard Sunday evenings as she brings you state headlines during NPR’s weekend edition of All Things Considered. She joined the news team in October of 2012.

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