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Women still under-represented in politics?

Betsy Sundquist//September 10, 2010

Women still under-represented in politics?

Betsy Sundquist//September 10, 2010

Peter Bartz-Gallagher)
“The political landscape has changed a lot since 1982,” noted womenwinning executive director Sarah Taylor-Nanista. But she added: “Women simply don’t see themselves as qualified. Women with the same qualifications as men continue to perceive themselves as less qualified.” (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

2010 or not, the womenwinning PAC still has more trouble recruiting candidates than it would like

Ellen Anderson remembers the door she knocked on in 1992 that made her realize that her preconceptions about male voters might be somewhat inaccurate.

Anderson, a state senator from St. Paul who is seeking her sixth term this year, was running in her first election. “I was out door-knocking one day, and a guy who was a total Archie Bunker stereotype answered the door,” she recalls. “He was a real working-class guy, with a beer can in his hand.

“I gave him my whole pitch about why I was running. He looked at me skeptically, paused, and then said, ‘It’s about time we elected more women.’ I just about fell over. That’s when I realized how widespread it was – the feeling that more women should run for office.”

It was that fervent belief that led to the formation a decade earlier of womenwinning, a St. Paul-based organization that has worked since 1982 to recruit and help pro-choice women win election to offices ranging from local school boards and the state Legislature to the U.S. House and Senate.

“The political landscape has changed a lot since 1982,” says Sarah Taylor-Nanista, who has been womenwinning’s executive director since 2007. “The sheer number of women coming to us [for help] has grown, and rather than support all pro-choice women, we support those who have a strong pro-choice presence.”

In August, womenwinning announced that it had raised the most money in its 28-year history during the 2010 election cycle – more than $500,000, almost half of that just in 2010 – through contributions, candidate fundraisers and recruitment and outreach efforts.

But one of the main concerns of, and obstacles for, womenwinning remains the same: the simple fact that although more women historically show up at the polls than men – according to Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics, the number of female voters has exceeded the number of male voters in every presidential election since 1964 – the percentage of women seeking office is still disproportionately low.

In fact, Taylor-Nanista says, womenwinning has more money available than it does candidates to receive it.

“Women simply don’t see themselves as qualified,” she says. “Women with the same qualifications as men continue to perceive themselves as less qualified.”

Additionally, the major political parties recruit men at much higher levels than they do women, Taylor-Nanista says. But she says research shows that when women run for office, they win at the same rates as men.

The highest state office that a woman has achieved in Minnesota is lieutenant governor; in fact, since Marlene Johnson became the first woman to be elected to that post in 1982, every lieutenant governor in the state has been female.

(That trend will continue this year if either DFLer Mark Dayton or Republican Tom Emmer wins the governor’s race: Dayton’s running mate is Yvonne Prettner Solon, and Emmer’s is Annette Meeks. Should the Independence Party’s Tom Horner win, his running mate, Jim Mulder, will break that cycle.)

For Anderson, in her early 30s at the time and with no political experience beyond volunteering for the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, the idea of seeking political office herself was born when she saw a redistricting map in 1992. “I thought, ‘Wow, someone should run for this seat,'” she remembers. “And then I thought, ‘Maybe I should run.'”

The idea was so intimidating that she sought the counsel of the legislators in the old version of her district, Alice Hausman and John Marty. Hausman advised Anderson to seek help from the Women Candidate Development Coalition, a group that has the same goal as womenwinning: to help progressive women become involved in Minnesota government and politics.

Anderson approached that group’s founder, Shirley Nelson. “I explained who I was and what I was thinking about,” Anderson says. “I sort of expected her to say, ‘Are you sure? Maybe you ought to think about it.'”

Instead, Anderson was gobsmacked when Nelson handed her a check and said, “Here’s what you need to do next.”

“It blew me away,” Anderson says. “It boosted my confidence so much that she didn’t think this was a crazy idea. She took me seriously; she was very matter-of-fact. She said, ‘Of course you should run, and here’s what you need to do.'”

One of the candidates who enjoyed strong support this year from womenwinning was Margaret Anderson Kelliher, who earned the DFL Party’s nomination for governor but lost a primary battle to Dayton. Despite Kelliher’s narrow primary loss, Taylor-Nanista’s group considers her showing in the primary more a victory than a loss.

“If you’re outspent two to one, that’s one thing,” Taylor-Nanista says. “But if you’re outspent eight to one, to have come that close against someone named Dayton in Minnesota, and against two millionaires – that makes it easier for the next woman. I’m very proud of what we did, and what Margaret accomplished.”

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