Articles by Claire Guthrie Gastańaga
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"Women and Legislative Issues:  First We Have to Elect More Women"
Richmond WOMAN, Vol. 1, Issue 1, September 2003, pp.15-16

It is difficult to have any conversation about legislative or public policy issues that concern Richmond women without looking first at the make up of the Virginia’s General Assembly. Virginia currently ranks 43rd in the country in the percentage of women in our state legislature.  While the 2000 Census confirmed that a majority of the residents of our state and a majority of the voting age population are women, only 15.7% of the members of the Virginia legislature are women.  This is down from 2001 when 16.4% of the members were women, and, because few women were nominated by either party to run for the legislature this year, the likelihood is that the number will go down rather than up after the ballots are counted in November 2003.  Virginia’s downward trend is at odds with trends in other states.  Virginia’s 15% was sufficient to rank us 37th in 1996 but 15.7% today ranks us 6 places lower in relation to other states.

You may ask, “why does this matter?”  A 1991 study by the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University found that the increased presence of women in state legislatures has an impact that is evident regardless of the party, ideology, feminist identification, constituency, seniority, age, or political insider status of the women who are elected. Women legislators are more likely than their male colleagues to give top priority to public policies related to their traditional roles as care givers, issues dealing with children, education, environment, aging, families, and health care. [Reshaping the Agenda: Women in State Legislatures, Center for the American Woman and Politics (1991)].

The underrepresentation of women in Virginia’s legislature can mean that there is no woman at the table when important public policies are debated. In Virginia, only one woman currently serves on the House Courts of Justice Committee that considers legislation including child support, domestic relations, family violence, juvenile justice, sexual assault, abortion restrictions, and tort reform. There are only three women on the House Appropriations Committee and one woman on the Senate Finance Committee that determine Virginia’s spending priorities.

The problem of underrepresentation remains in Virginia and other states partly because fewer women choose to seek public office. And, the most recent data seem to suggest that the number of candidates is decreasing after a period of increased participation.  There continue to be real and perceived barriers to women’s candidacies. According to a poll commissioned by RENEW (the Republican Network to Elect Women), more than 22 percent of men say they have considered running for office, while only nine percent of women have.

Some women seem to feel they need some kind of special education or background to seek political office. Others are concerned about the impact of a political candidacy on their families. Women responding to the RENEW poll reported a “general cynicism of politics and the ‘old boys network’” and said they felt “ill prepared for the political front line” [RENEW, November 5, 1993]. Some women think they may have difficulty obtaining their party’s nomination. Although Republican women have fared “unusually well” in legislative races-- in 1994, they won 66 percent of their races, compared to 54 percent for Democratic women-- they make up a smaller proportion of their party’s legislators [State Legislatures, February 1995].

In my experience, most women are just as prepared to seek public office as most men now in office were when they first ran. Many women are more prepared than some men who choose to run because they have years of experience in public organizing and advocacy as volunteers or community activists or from years of volunteering in the campaigns of men. As Patricia R. Vance said, running for public office is one way to “trace your family tree.” And no candidate, woman or man, should consider becoming a candidate without the unequivocal support of his or her family.

Some women have hesitated to run because of a sense that voters are not supportive of women candidates-- particularly those who espouse so-called women’s issues. The reality here, however, seems to be that most women candidates start any campaign with some inherent advantages, like perceived honesty, compassion, and outsider status, and that “women’s issues” like family friendly workplaces, access to health care and quality schools attract majority support at least among women voters.

We need to work harder to find, nurture and support women candidates for local, state and federal office.  What clearer right should women have in our democracy than the right of majority rule? Women make up the majority of our population, in Virginia and nationally; women outnumber men among registered voters; and the number of women voters has exceeded the number of male voters in every presidential election since 1964 [Sex Differences in Voter Turnout, 1995 Fact Sheet, Center for the American Woman and Politics, Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University]. If, indeed, there are women’s issues, why shouldn’t “our issues” take precedence in any election cycle? And, who is better suited to articulate these issues than women candidates?

This is not to say that men cannot do a good and effective job of advocating for and legislating about issues of concern to women. They can. But, as Anna Quindlen has said, if you believe that “our political leaders don’t have a clue about real life, look for a woman. I've rarely met a woman who didn't know more about the supermarket, the bus stop, and the prevailing winds than her male counterparts.” And, it is these “real life” issues that continue to drive the majority of the electorate, except in times of war.

It is too late now to do much about the fact that the 2003 legislative elections are likely to elect fewer women than at any time in the past decade.  But, it is just the right time for Richmond women to begin working together to ensure that we will have more choices among candidates for public office in the 2004 local elections, the 2005 legislative and statewide elections and beyond.(end)

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