RI making progress in closing political gender gap

AP News
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Posted: Nov 13, 2011 12:15 PM
RI making progress in closing political gender gap

Susan Farmer was the first woman elected to statewide office in Rhode Island when, in 1982, the voters picked her to be the state's Secretary of State. It was a job female candidates had sought before.

"There was something about that word `secretary' that made people more comfortable with the idea of a woman," she recalled with a laugh. "I guess they thought it was really a secretarial job."

Times have changed in the Ocean State. When Gov. Lincoln Chafee took office in January, women held 15 percent of the positions filled by the governor.. Of nearly 500 appointments made by Chafee so far, 45 percent are women.

Women are breaking political glass ceilings elsewhere in the state, too. The state's education commissioner and lieutenant governor are women. Teresa Paiva Weed is the state's first female senate president. Treasurer Gina Raimondo is considered a political up-and-comer who so far has led efforts to curb the state's runaway pension costs.

Yet Rhode Island has never had a female governor or U.S. Senator and has elected only one female U.S. Representative. The state is one of 20 that currently have no female representation in Congress.

"Until Rhode Island elects a woman as a U.S. senator or governor, there still exists a glass ceiling in regard to women in politics in Rhode Island," said Brown University Political Science Professor Wendy Schiller.

A year ago, advocates for greater political involvement by women created the Rhode Island Government Appointments Project. The group challenged Chafee and other gubernatorial candidates to double the number of women appointed to state positions to 30 percent, up from 15 percent under former Gov. Don Carcieri.

Chafee, an independent, took the pledge, and so far he's outperforming expectations. He's appointed more than 200 women to state agencies, boards and commissions

The list includes cabinet members like Janet Coit, director of the state's Department of Environmental Management and Janice DeFrances, director of the Department of Children, Youth and Families.

"I'm proud of that achievement," Chafee told the Associated Press. "It never made sense to me, looking at a list of people serving on a particular board, why all of the names would be male. I just think diversity makes you stronger. Diversity of all kinds."

Leaders of the Government Appointments Project said appointing women not only improves the diversity of government boards and commissions, but also represents a critical step in encouraging more women to seek higher office. A key reason for the gender gap in politics is that women don't run for office in the same number as men.

For example: even though women make up 52 percent of the state's population, only 25 percent of state lawmakers are women.

"Bottom line, women don't win if they don't run," said Myrth York, a former state senator who ran unsuccessfully for governor. "You have to get women involved in the process at all points _ to show men and women they can do it."

Farmer and York recall days in which female candidates were accused of abandoning their families to run for office, or judged more on their jewelry and haircuts than their stand on the issues. That's changed _ mostly _ they said, but the need to get women involved in politics hasn't.

The state's female politicians represent the political spectrum. Raimondo, Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts and Paiva Weed are Democrats, but GOP women are making progress, too.

"I say let's make the General Assembly all women," joked Rep. Doreen Costa, a tea party Republican from North Kingstown elected last fall. "I think we bring a fresh approach. We come from different backgrounds and we have a lot to offer the state."

Despite the improvement, The Government Appointments Project isn't declaring victory. The group plans to continue monitoring Chafee's appointments, and working to encourage more women to run for office.

Farmer said she hopes to see the day when women politicians are judged by their leadership and their views and not their gender.

"I remember I just had to work that much harder to prove to people I could do the job," she said. "That was 30 years ago, but we're not there yet. It's ridiculous that it even has to be an issue."