Operation Pipeline: Women in Politics

Women in politics: why more women should run for office, and how they can get political support.

By Beth Hawkins
Photograph: Photo by: iStock

Candidates’ Challenges
Concerned that women are more likely than men to drop out of politics after a loss, strategists and trainers make a point of supporting women who’ve lost races and helping them retool.
In 2004, Dianne Primavera lost her first race for the Colorado statehouse. Looking back at the campaign, she says, she was just making it up as she went along, relying mostly on her resume. She had worked her way up in state government, survived breast cancer and divorce, and was raising two children on her own.
But last year, during a three-day White House Project training course, Primavera was struck by just how much her campaign had been missing: a clear strategy, eye-catching campaign literature, and the right way to frame her personal experience.
In the first race, she had talked about breast cancer but wasn’t sure how to handle it. This time, Primavera, 57, brought the topic front and center, pushing her own strength in battling the disease and spelling out how her professional experience — she had managed state medical programs — made her an ideal healthcare candidate. A Democrat in a Republican district, she won her second race by 858 votes, about 51 to 49 percent.
The network of money, people, and support that helped her win reminds Primavera of how her father used to talk about the Democratic "machine" that kept the party in power in Chicago. "I could never picture that machine," she says. "Now I know. It’s a machine that got me elected."
A year from now, women’s groups will be able to gauge their success by counting how many women are on ballots throughout the country. But if terrorism and war remain high on the national agenda, candidates will face what may be their biggest challenge: a persistent voter confidence gap.
Research by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, a nonpartisan group that supports women in politics, showed that both men and women find male candidates more credible on topics like terrorism or war. But women can’t simply match what men do. For example, voters might recoil if women use hawkish language. They’ll be more receptive, strategists say, if women translate security concerns into messages about public health and infrastructure.
The White House Project’s Real Security Initiative is trying to help women candidates find their voice on this issue. It teaches basic security topics such as the defense budget and helps women tailor their national security message to their own constituency. Republican Susan Collins, 54, is an outspoken member of the Senate’s Armed Services and Homeland Security committees. She urges women to seek out such assignments.
As governors, Arizona’s Janet Napolitano and Kansas’s Kathleen Sebelius are commanders in chief of their states’ National Guard. That has given the women, both Democrats, unusual opportunities to literally show the flag. Sebelius won reelection in 2006 with the help of media footage showing her in a Black Hawk helicopter, on the ground in Iraq and at a welcome-home ceremony, kissing a baby held up to the camera by the child’s father, a soldier in uniform.
Visibility on hard-core issues other than the military also helps candidates counter stereotypes and build authority. Arizona’s Napolitano has been aggressive on border security, for example. Education may be her top priority as governor, she says, "but if all I did was talk about education, I would be superintendent of public education."
Republican Sarah Palin, the youngest person (at 42) and first woman to be elected governor of Alaska, has long been building a battle-tough image. She ran against "the old boys’ network" in the 1996 contest for mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, and later served as the chair of Alaska’s powerful Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. The press picked up on her nickname from her high school basketball days, "Sarah Barracuda.’‘ Palin is a favorite with some conservative bloggers who would like to see her on the 2008 presidential ticket.
The Maine Effect

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