Younger women must start to pursue political dreams

  • Ellen Goodman / Boston Globe columnist
  • Wednesday, December 6, 2000 9:00pm
  • Opinion

BOSTON — Reluctant as I am to steal the spotlight from Florida, we here in Massachusetts have a small political announcement:

Florida may have pregnant chads, but we have a pregnant lieutenant governor.

Florida may be laboring mightily with a battalion of legal midwives to get one candidate out of the Votomatic birth canal, but Jane Swift is having twins.

This is not an exercise in one-upswoman-ship, I assure you. I repeat this only because, in the end, Jane Swift’s maternity dress may have more meaning, at least for the future of women in politics, than Katherine Harris’ St. John knits.

Call this year of the tie, not the skirt. But election 2000 will bring a record number of women, The Lucky Thirteen, to the Senate. It will also clock a record number of women — 59 — going to the House of Representatives.

But at the other end of the pipeline, the entry level end, 2000 was a downer. There will actually be fewer women in state legislatures than there were in 1999.

Women had been inching up, point by point, since 1971, when only 4.5 percent of state reps and senators were women. By the 1990s the figure had risen to nearly a quarter. As Debbie Walsh, the head of the Center for American Women and Politics — and a mother of twins — says, "We always said that it would be slow steady growth of one or two points a year."

But in 1994 they began to plateau and now, for the first time, there’s a decline. The drop from 1,670 to 1,659 is not precipitous, but we can no longer assume the escalator will keep going up. This is disappointing, not just for state government itself but also for the much lauded "pipeline."

State legislatures vary enormously — from Alabama with only 8 percent women to Washington with 41 percent. But this is where women such as new U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell of Washington and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan got started.

There is lots of speculation on why the numbers have plateaued but it’s clear that women aren’t entering politics in the same numbers they are entering law, medicine or even journalism for that matter. It’s not that women aren’t winning; it’s that enough aren’t running.

Gary Moncrief, a political scientist from Boise State University, finds that men are more likely to jump into politics while women need more encouragement. In fact, as Sue Thomas of Georgetown has shown, men dream and plan their political lives earlier. By 30, half of male legislators had dreamed of winning and running. Only 20 percent of the women shared that dream.

The biggest hurdle may not be the dream but the reality: the same epidemic difficulty of balancing family with overwork. Add to that campaigning and commuting. Women in Idaho, for example, are less likely to run the farther they live from the state capital. Nationwide, women are less likely to run if they have small children.

The end result, says Thomas, is that 24 percent of men in politics have made their first run by age 30, but only 6 six percent of women. By 39, 60 percent of the men have made their first run but only 41 percent of the women. Which puts us waaay behind.

All this comes back to the lieutenant governor beginning her third year and second trimester in office. At 25, Swift was the youngest Republican woman to win a state Senate seat. At 33, she gave birth to her first child two weeks before the election.

Much of her fame and/or notoriety has come from her maternity. In office she suffered the new mother’s delusion that everyone loved her baby, and got criticized properly (if excessively) for using staffers as "volunteer" baby sitters.

If Bush wins the presidential overtime and asks Gov. Paul Cellucci to take a post, a 35-year-old Swift could become the first woman governor to give birth in office — although hopefully not in the office. This has prompted a good deal of muttering about whether she can gestate and govern.

Never mind that Swift has a husband as primary child caregiver. She’s often judged on the double standard (external and maybe internal) that has driven so many women off fast tracks and into their own businesses.

We won’t get 50 women in the Senate or one in the White House until we get more in the statehouses. It’s going to be a pretty dry pipeline unless women are dreaming and running sooner. It’s going to be parched if young women have to choose between making babies and making laws.

All in all, the freshest faces of 2001 may be Jane Swift’s twins. Just don’t name them Chad and Dimple.

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