March 27, 2011

Maine Observer: Women's History Month: Progress, and shortfalls

Maine is 13th in the nation for women who hold elected office, but the nation is 84th in the world.

Every year during Women's History Month I think about how far women have come in our political culture and where they need to go in the future. Women make up over half the voting population in the country, yet they run for public office in far fewer numbers than men.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Katie Mae Simpson
is executive director of Emerge Maine, a training program for Democratic women headquartered in Portland (www.emergemaine.org).

• Readers may submit original 500-word essays about Maine life via e-mail for this column to: mainevoices@pressherald.com. Submissions must include the full name, address and daytime phone number of the author.

Certainly in Maine, women have made inroads. Former Speaker of the House Hannah Pingree, former state Senate President and gubernatorial candidate Libby Mitchell, current Senate Assistant Majority Leader Debra Plowman and current House Minority Leader Emily Cain are examples of those inroads.

Yet in the current 125th Legislature, only 52 representatives are female. That's less than a quarter of the total.

And Maine is doing relatively well -- it ranks in the top 15 for state legislatures with a ranking of 13th in the nation in terms of women in elected office. It has two female U.S. senators and one female congresswoman.

This is all good, but even so, no woman has served in elected state office here.

On the national front, female membership in Congress has tripled over the last 30 years and there has finally been a viable female candidate for the presidency. Yet the United States still ranks 84th in the world for women in elected office, falling behind Mexico, China and Pakistan.

What's going on? Studies show that women are less likely than men to be recruited to run for public office. Women also have a tougher time balancing work and family obligations with the stresses of running.

And women are also less likely to "self-select," meaning they are less likely than men to consider themselves good candidates and choose to run on their own.

If willingness to run is partially about perception, then we are looking at a sizable confidence gap between the sexes.

There are a couple ways around this: One is for sitting female public officials to reach out to potential female candidates, to build an Old Girls Network and use it to draw more women into the public arena.

Another is education. It can play an important role in giving women the confidence and tools to run for office while also preparing them for the rigors of a campaign.

It's important for women to realize that their life experience and skill set -- whether as homemakers, blue collar or white collar workers -- has resonance and applicability in the political world.

Hopefully in the future more women will feel as confident as men to enter the political arena and pull the United States out of 84th place.

- Special to the Telegram

 

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