Why Does Pennsylvania Elect So Few Women To Political Office?

Oct 28, 2016

Though Pennsylvania's population is 51 percent female, women are only represented in 18 percent of state political offices.
Credit Gov. Tom Wolf / Flickr

In 1916, Montana’s Jeannette Rankin became the first woman to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. A century later, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is the first female candidate to lead a major party’s ticket. And with two weeks left until Election day, she’s leading in the polls.

Women have made progress when it comes to political representation in the United States over the years, but a look at the state-by-state numbers shows those gains haven’t happened equally among states – especially in Pennsylvania.  

According to Rutgers University’s Center for American Women in Politics, Pennsylvania ranks 40th out of all 50 states in the number of women elected to serve in its state legislature in proportion to its population. At just 18 percent in the state legislature, Pennsylvania women are underrepresented while making up 51 percent of the state’s population. Pennsylvania has never cracked through 38th place in Rutgers’ poll.

Jeanette Rankin, a Republican representative to Montana from 1917-19 and again in 1941-43, was the first woman to be elected to Congress.
Credit Library of Congress

When it comes to electing women to the U.S. Congress, Pennsylvania fares even worse.

“I think most people don’t realize we actually have zero women in Congress right now,” said Jennie Sweet-Cushman, assistant director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women in Politics at Chatham University.

Pennsylvania does not have a single female congressional member.

That could change this year, though, if Democratic candidate Katie McGinty is elected to the U.S. Senate. She is currently locked in a tight race with incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Toomey. In the rest of the state, none of the women running for the U.S. House of Representatives in five of the state’s 18 districts are favored to win

Sweet-Cushman said the reason there aren’t many women holding these seats involves what’s known as “the pipeline to higher office.” The idea is that women never end up in higher offices, because they aren’t represented in lower offices.  

“So when you look at the state legislature and only have about 18 percent of that body being women, the likelihood that you’re going to have women to run for governor, to run for Congress, to run for U.S. Senate, is just not very likely,” she said.

The numbers show there are fewer women in these “pipeline” positions across the state.

Data compiled by the PCWP show women make up about 30 percent of council members in the Commonwealth’s largest municipalities and represent only 19 percent of its mayors.

According to Sweet-Cushman, women aren’t being recruited by party leaders and historically, men are more likely to volunteer for office.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Katie McGinty would be the first female senator, if elected in November.
Credit Matt Slocum / AP

“(Women are) maybe involved in their communities, and they're waiting,” she said. “Maybe they have some latent political ambition and they're waiting for someone to say, ‘Hey, you know, that city council seat is opening up. You'd be really great.’ That's what solidifies that for women.”

So, why aren’t parties more actively recruiting female candidates?

According to Melanie Hughes, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh, it’s a self-fulfilling cycle.

“The fact that there’s never been a successful female candidate for governor matters; that so few women have ever served in Congress from Pennsylvania matters,” Hughes said. “It means that women are less likely to put themselves forward, but it also may mean there’s a perception among party leaders that Pennsylvania voters don’t want to vote for women. And if they believe that, they might not be working as hard to recruit women.”

But the numbers don’t support the idea that men tend to be more electable than female candidates. Research shows men and women win elections at similar rates

One way to get more Pennsylvania women involved in politics might be “gender quotas,” which would require political parties to field a certain number of male and female candidates. Quota systems have successfully boosted female political involvement internationally, Hughes said.

But she added many in the United States might reject such an idea as “undemocratic” or as diminishing the quality of candidates.

Among all 50 U.S. states, Pennsylvania ranks 40th when it comes to the proportion of women (18%) making up its total number of elected state legislators. Currently, there are no women serving as members of Pennsylvania's 20-member U.S. congressional delegation in Washington, D.C.
Credit The Center for American Women in Politics

“Some of the most recent studies suggest that quotas are, in fact, good for candidate quality, because who actually gets kicked out are the more mediocre and low-performing men,” Hughes said. “So, countries end up retaining some of the high-quality male candidates and recruiting high-quality female candidates.”

Because of that, Hughes said either major American party might be well served to self-impose a quota system on candidates they field in the future. 

Pennsylvania’s Center for Women in Politics, isn’t waiting around for quotas. Since 2012, PCWP has hosted “Ready to Run” events in both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.The gatherings serve as training seminars for women interested in running for office. According to Sweet-Cushman, nearly 300 women have graduated from the program so far.

“Now, looking forward, municipal elections in 2017, you know, maybe that's an opportunity for more women to get their names on the ballot and into the pipeline,” she said.