Training women for office

The Observer: Spring ’07
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An observer of the Legislature might conclude there’s something rotten in Harrisburg. Whether it’s the middle-​of-​the night pay raise in 2005 or recent revelations about the legislators’ fatuous bonus expenses, it’s clear where their interests lie. And with 253 of them, we have the most state legislators in the nation (except for New Hampshire’s anomalous, quasi volunteers).

For the most recent year, the cost of keeping our legislators leaped 9 percent — nearly quadruple the rate of inflation — to $308 million.

So we’re at the top in numbers and the cost of our legislators. Interestingly, though, we’re near the bottom in terms of the participation of women — with only 14.6 percent of the Legislature being female. That ranks Pennsylvania 44th out of the 50 states, with the only states with lower participation being Southern.

Chatham College is trying to change that. In January, the Pennsylvania Center for Women, Politics, and Public Policy at Chatham offered the Winning Edge Campaign School to women interested in running for office. The program is an intensive, weekend-​long simulation of a state House race. With 30 hours of training in a 48-​hour window, it gives participants a sense of what the reality of running for office would be: working a day job, taking care of the family, going to early morning meetings and evening functions and writing thank-​you notes. In other words, challenging.

As it turns out, research shows that women, much more than men, feel they need training in order to feel qualified to run for office, according to Allyson Lowe who directs the Chatham program. So Chatham decided to offer that training, with two Democrat trainers and two Republicans. Their field of prospects was 60/​40, Democrat/​Republican, with 25 percent African American and a few Hispanics and Asians.

Research further indicates that when women run for office and win, government begins to change.

Two basic things happen,” Lowe said. “More issues get on the agenda. And a broader array of policy solutions are considered. Women make sure the conversation is more inclusive both in what is initially discussed and in the ranges of solutions that are considered.”

It appears that the goal of getting more women to run is gaining traction. This year’s capacity class of 40 more than doubled a similar program two years ago. Perhaps more women are dissatisfied with what they see in Harrisburg. It’s also likely that the number of incumbents who lost last fall has encouraged would-​be candidates that they would have a shot at winning.

November’s election also gave a Chatham graduate her first win — State Rep. Lisa Bennington, (D) from House District 21, which covers from Bloomfield across the Allegheny and into Shaler.

Surely, more change like this can only do us good.

PQ Staff

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