Women stepping up to take larger part in government
CAPITAL REGION They shared stories about running for office and stories about the sexism they sometimes encountered.
They talked about the challenges facing women in politics, such as time away from home, why they decided to run for office and the importance of coalition-building and finding common ground.
State Sens. Kathy Marchione, R-Halfmoon, and Cecilia Tkaczyk, D-Duanesburg, and Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy, D-Albany, spoke Friday at a panel discussion on Women of Influence in Politics, held at Russell Sage College in Troy.
“We did not have easy paths to get to where we are today,” said Tkaczyk, who defeated former Assemblyman George Amedore last fall. “Just convincing people I had a chance took a lot of work. … No one was willing to ask me to run.”
But when she looked at the district map, “I thought, ‘This is the district for me.’ I felt that I was the best candidate.”
Women are being elected to all levels of government in increasing numbers, according to political experts. At the national level, former Secretary of State and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton is already viewed as a front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, and a record number of women — 98 — are serving in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate.
The Capital Region has not been immune to this trend, as voters have shown an increasing willingness to elect women to higher office. Albany city treasurer and mayoral candidate Kathy Sheehan won the Democratic primary Tuesday and is now a virtual lock to win the general election, and Saratoga Springs will also begin 2014 with a female mayor: Democrat Joanne Yepsen will face Republican Shauna Sutton at the polls in November. Other local female leaders include Amsterdam Mayor Ann Thane and state Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury.
Marchione, Tkaczyk and Fahy are all first-term members of the state Legislature. Fahy and Tkaczyk both cut their political teeth serving on local school boards, while Marchione was elected as Halfmoon town clerk at age 25 and later served as Saratoga County clerk.
“Nationally, there was a big uptick in women in government in the early 1990s,” said Zoe Oxley, an assistant professor of political science at Union College. “Then there was a gradual uptick. Then it plateaued. But it seems like there’s been more of an increase lately.”
Dina Refki, executive director of the Center for Women in Government & Civil Society at the University at Albany, said women have made great strides, but their representation in government does not come close to reflecting the fact they comprise about half of the country’s population.
“Nationally, 2012 represented a mandate for women’s leadership, and women voted a lot of women into office,” Refki said. “However, let’s not forget the big picture: Yes, we are making progress, but it is very slow.”
Overall levels, she said, have stayed stagnant.
“There are five women governors, and 24 states have never elected a woman governor,” she said.
In recent years, the number of women in the New York state Legislature has remained flat. According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, 46 of the 213 seats in the Senate and Assembly are held by women, about 21.6 percent, down from 2012, when 47 of the seats were held by women, and down from a high of 52 out of 212 seats, or 24.5 percent, in 2009. But these numbers do show a big jump from 1990, when just 23 of 211 seats were held by women, about 10.9 percent.
Getting the job done
Refki suggested women are often elected because voters want something different. Today’s electorate “is tired of politics as usual,” she said. “The level of distrust is at an all-time high. They want change, and women candidates represent a fresh start.”
Pamela F. Katz, a professor of political science and legal studies at Russell Sage College, said voters see “the value of feminine models of leadership.”
Women, she said, “generally encourage collaboration. They seem very pragmatic, like they want to get things done.”
For voters, this approach to governance has appeal.
“People are sick of partisan politics,” she said.
Oxley said women are generally not as politically ambitious as men, and when they do decide to throw their hat in the ring, they are usually more qualified than the typical first-time male candidate. As a result, women “are often pretty good candidates,” she said.
Women are also more likely to enter a race if someone encourages them, while men require less nudging from outside groups and organizations, she said.
In the past, women were unlikely to be recruited and groomed by political organizations because voters didn’t view them as viable candidates. But Oxley said this is changing as more women win office. Women also benefit from the fact that voters perceive them as less corrupt than men, she said.
“Women are perceived to be more honest, fair and ethical,” she said. “So when a contest is focused on corruption, people might be more likely to vote for women.”
Setting a good example
Katz said there are more political role models for younger women today, and as a result, they are more likely to run for office.
“Young women are seeing themselves in these roles,” Katz said. “They are seeing such an array of women in all levels of government.”
Tkaczyk told a story Friday about how she was approached by a woman and her 15-year-old daughter during her Assembly campaign. When she wondered why they wanted to meet her — they weren’t residents of her district — the mother said she wanted her daughter to meet a woman who was running for office.
“I realized that this was not just about me,” Tkaczyk said.
Marchione suggested that women tend to listen better than their male counterparts and are often better at building relationships. She noted that while she is a Republican and Fahy and Tkaczyk are Democrats, they should be capable of finding common ground and working together.
“This morning when I walked in, I said, ‘Pat, we should have coffee,’ ” she said.
Barbara Smith, a well-known black feminist who is a professor of public service in the University at Albany’s School of Social Welfare, said diversity in government is important because it opens the halls of power to people who have traditionally been marginalized.
Women and people of color “bring something unique and valuable to each table at which they sit,” Smith said. “They bring a different perspective.”
Women might also be passionate about issues their male counterparts have generally not taken as seriously or prioritized, such as sexual violence. U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., she noted, has emerged as a leader on the issue of sexual assault in the military.
Smith said people mistakenly believe political correctness and a desire to avoid appearing prejudiced is driving the effort to bring diversity to government and the workplace. In reality, diversity is valuable because a wider range of voices and perspectives can lead to better outcomes for everyone, she said.
“Women bring different experiences, and those experiences can translate into strong policy,” she said.
Tkaczyk echoed this sentiment at the panel.
“I think we’ll have a better government, and a better society, when all citizens are engaged in the political process,” she said.
Smith, who serves on the Albany Common Council, worked on Sheehan’s campaign and believes her victory is significant. If Sheehan becomes mayor, she will be Albany’s first female mayor and only the city’s fourth mayor since the 1940s.
“Every other person who has served as mayor has been a white male,” she said.
“Despite the fact that there are so many organizations that are training, recruiting and supporting women financially to run, we still do not have enough women running,” Refki said.
The problem, she said, is not a lack of ambition but the fear of negative consequences when expressing ambition, cultural stereotypes and double-standards facing female candidates, challenges with balancing work and home and a lack of access to political networks.
At the end of the panel at Russell Sage, the female legislators were asked whether they expected to see a female president in their lifetime. All three expressed optimism.
“I believe we could,” Marchione said, noting that there are a number of high-powered Democratic and Republican women. “I believe our country is ready for it.”
“I would say, ‘Why not?’ ” Tkaczyk said. “Women need to start looking at themselves and seeing themselves in those positions.”
“I think it’s inevitable,” Fahy said.