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Western Pa. sends record numbers of women to Harrisburg, but still outnumbered by men

December 3, 2018

Democrat Lindsey Williams is an education advocate from West View who champions protecting workers’ rights, making health care more affordable and pumping more money into schools.

Republican Natalie Mihalek is a U.S. Navy veteran and former prosecutor from Upper St. Clair whose priorities include property tax breaks for seniors, expanding benefits for veterans and combating the opioid crisis.

Though perched on opposite sides of the political aisle, the newly elected state lawmakers share at least a few things in common: They’re women under 40, are new to public office and are replacing multi-term male legislators in Harrisburg.

Their victories Tuesday night add to an influx of female state lawmakers from both parties who won election or re-election, resulting in the highest number of women holding state office in Pennsylvania to date.

“It’s fantastic,” said Mihalek, 39, who beat out two men seeking the GOP’s nomination in May to replace retiring 11-term state Rep. John Maher in the 40th District. “As I look around the General Assembly, a few years ago when I first got the bug to run, I didn’t feel it was representative of the community. Being young, being a mom, just being an active member of the community, I didn’t feel that I had a voice in Harrisburg.

“Pennsylvania, in particular, has gone through this 30 or 40 years of career politicians and people sitting in office for decades on end, and I don’t think that that’s healthy,” Mihalek said. “I don’t know that’s how you get the best legislation.”

Williams, whose razor-thin victory in the 38th Senate District over Republican Jeremy Shaffer, a Ross Township commissioner, came down to just 549 votes, said that increasing women’s involvement in politics benefits the populace as a whole: “Bringing different perspectives to the table just makes our democracy better,” she said.

“The state Senate doubled the number of women in office last night. That’s pretty cool,” said Williams, 35, who is taking the place of Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-Shaler, ousted by Shaffer in the May primary. “It’s an incredible feeling, the women across the state and, specifically, here in southwestern Pennsylvania, got to know each other well and all worked so incredibly hard on their races.”

Women seeking political office gain momentum

Based on unofficial results from Tuesday’s election, the state House next year will have at least 50 women, up from 42, and the state Senate will have 12 women, up from seven, with figures subject to fluctuate amid some still-contested races.

Pennsylvania also is sending a record-high four U.S. congresswomen, all Democrats from the suburbs of Philadelphia, to Washington. It’s currently one of 11 states without a single woman in Congress and has never had more than two.

The trends are in line with higher numbers of women from both parties vying for political office around the country, elections research shows.

“What’s been happening is that women seem to have a sense of urgency, and they’re stepping up to do something about it and not waiting their turn from the old boys’ clubs,” said Amanda Hunter, spokeswoman for the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, a Cambridge, Mass.-based nonpartisan organization that aims to increase the representation of women at all levels of politics. “Now is the time for women candidates, because voters are fed up with the status quo and are noticing that women lead differently. They see a vote for women as a vote for change.”

Advocates for gender parity in politics are hopeful that the midterm election’s results will fuel momentum among women candidates and supporters.

“You can’t be what you can’t see, and we found that in states where there have been women governors, like New Hampshire, it’s easier for voters to imagine a woman doing the job, and they may be more likely to support a women moving forward,” Hunter said.

Gender-based barriers persist

Despite this week’s record-breaking numbers, women still are far from reaching proportionality in politics with male counterparts.

Prior to Tuesday’s midterm election, 49 women held seats in Pennsylvania’s General Assembly, or about 20 percent of the legislature.

In 2019, the state House and Senate will include 63 female lawmakers, or 24.5 percent of the 253-member General Assembly.

The needle similarly budged only slightly on the national scale, with Congress now made up of 23 percent women even though women make up more than half the U.S. population. Just 16 women had held governorships when the Barbara Lee Family Foundation began its work 20 years ago, and now 39 women have been governors -- compared to about 2,300 men.

“The biggest barriers haven’t changed,” Hunter said. “Women still have to work twice as hard to prove that they’re qualified to voters.

“Men can simply list their jobs they’ve held like positions on a resume, and women have to prove their accomplishments, they have to use action-oriented language to explain what they actually have done and why that makes them qualified for the job.”

Williams said that, as a woman, it can be “hard sometimes to get the institutional support, whether the party support or labor, it can be a little slower.”

The need to attract high-level donors to win competitive races is why gender equity needs to happen outside of politics, too, meaning getting more women into leadership roles in trade groups, corporations and the boards who control them, Hunter said. She pointed to research demonstrating that women who seek office tend to excel at consensus-building and may be less driven by fame and fortune than some men.

“It’s going to take a while, it’s not going to happen overnight because, unfortunately, there are barriers to running as a woman,” Mihalek said.

Mihalek experienced what felt like different treatment from male candidates when she approached local committee members to discuss her candidacy this past spring. The mother of three young children was dismayed to be confronted with what felt more like a 1950s-era question: How would she handle being a lawmaker AND a mom?

“It’s a little insulting to my husband, who’s perfectly capable of taking care of his own children,” said Mihalek, noting she and her husband share household duties and caring for their children, ages 7, 5 and 2, “and it’s hard for many working moms. It’s hard for stay-at-home moms. Being a mom is hard, but it is a juggling act and that’s not really any different from being a lawyer and a mom.”

Cultivating the next generation of lawmakers

What’s more, being a mother can be an asset because it “changes your perspective on the world, and it gives you a different voice to go to Harrisburg with,” Mihalek said.

Williams, who’s spent 10 years doing legislative advocacy work, said that she, too, brings a fresh perspective and valuable input as a single woman without kids. The female candidates she’s helped to support all are “women who are leaders in their communities who are doing all sorts of good.”

Williams was among eight candidates to win Tuesday who graduated from Emerge Pennsylvania, a six-month course aimed at getting more Democratic women into political office. Seven of them flipped districts from red to blue.

The mere fact that a candidate is a woman isn’t likely to sway voters significantly, Hunter said.

“We know that party tends to outweigh gender when voters make decisions,” Hunter said.

Women who ran and lost their bids Tuesday should avoid getting too discouraged, Hunter said. New research published by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation this week observed voter perception deviating from prior years when women who lost elections often were “blamed for their loss and had a difficult time shaking that reputation.”

“Our research shows that voters still rate losing women candidates favorably and believe that they are qualified to run for office again,” Hunter said. “The next steps for a woman candidate who loses her election are critical. According to voters, successful repeat candidates will stay engaged in public life by continuing to hold a political office, conducting a listening tour, taking a role in her political party, helping other women run for office or serving on a commission.”

Both Williams and Mihalek said they frequently encourage other women to get politically active and offer up support via networking and mentorship opportunities. Mihalek credits state Sen. Guy Reschenthaler, whom she lost to in a 2015 state Senate race, with pushing her to keep going.

“I still haven’t won a couple people from my own party because they don’t like women who work outside the home,” Mihalek said. “I’m just not going to change their minds.

“But for all the haters and naysayers ... so many people come up to me, older women who were stay-at-home moms their whole life, that say, ‘I wish I had the courage to do what you did.’”

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