Jane Swift

BOSTON (WOMENSENEWS)–To examine why women have fared so poorly on the national political stage, more than 400 women are putting their heads together in a meeting that began Sunday at the John F. Kennedy Library here and continues today.

A nostalgic backdrop to the meeting is the moment, 20 years ago, when U.S. women stood up and cheered U.S. Representative GeraldineFerraro as she became this country’s first female vice presidential candidate.

At last, so many women thought, and with great expectations, “At last one of us might make it to the White House.”

“It seemed inevitable,” said Carol Hardy-Fanta, an organizer of the meeting and director of the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the Boston campus of the University of Massachusetts.

But Ferraro–who had to miss the New England Women’s Political Summit because of poor health–appears now to be the precedent that wasn’t.

The presidential aspirations four years ago of Senator Elizabeth Dole–then a member of the U.S. Cabinet–and in 1998, of former Representative Patricia Schroeder, died young. In the current presidential race, former Representative Carol Moseley-Braun struggles along in the low single-digits in most polls as she battles eight men for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004.

‘Stagnation and Decline’

No doubt, the picture for women running for high office in the U.S. is gloomy, said Hardy-Fanta. “Stagnation and decline,” she sighed.

Six women may be serving as governors, she said, but the chance to almost double that number disappeared in the last election cycle when five others were defeated. In terms of the number of women in elected office, “it hasn’t gone the way some people thought,” Madeleine Kunin, told Women’s eNews in an interview. “And it has been excruciatingly slow,” added the governor of Vermont from 1986 to 1991. “I wish I had the answers.”

Delegates to this first New England women’s political summit hope to uncover some explanations. Many of them, such as U.S. Representative Loretta Sanchez, a Democrat from California, hold elective office. Others operate behind the scenes, as political rainmakers. Others are academics, such as conference organizer Hardy-Fanta, who studies women in politics. Participants are being asked to write out their individual political goals and to enumerate three action steps to attain those ends. Hardy-Fanta said her center will follow up in the next four years to determine if those goals were reached.

Hardy-Fanta said the New England region offered a case study on diminishing victories by women in the political arena. None of the six states currently has a female governor. Half of the states in what is widely considered an enlightened political region have never elected a woman governor.

According to letter rankings established by the Washington-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Maine is the only New England state that rates as high as a B in an index that measures female political participation and power. Rhode Island gets a D, and most states get C’s.

Swift Bowed Out

Last year, Acting Governor Jane M. Swift of Massachusetts withdrew her bid to run for the office she inherited when her predecessor, Argeo Paul Cellucci, accepted an ambassadorship. Swift, a Republican, had been battered by charges that she used statehouse workers to baby-sit her three young children as well as accusations that she misused a state helicopter when one of her daughters was ill. To juggle her family and her job, Swift made an epic commute each day from western Massachusetts to Boston–two and one-half hours by car each way.

Swift bowed out in favor of venture capitalist Mitt Romney, a sharp-elbowed fellow Republican. Romney and his female running mate, Kerry Healey, easily maintained their party’s grip on the coveted corner office of the Massachusetts statehouse.

Romney and Healey scored particularly high among 18-to-25-year-old female voters; a voting bloc that Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Shannon O’Brien had assumed belonged to her.

Former New Hampshire Governor Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, also went down to defeat in her bid to represent her state in the U.S. Senate.

The number of women in three New England state legislatures has declined in the last decade, and none has increased. Women in top appointed positions in the areas’ governments also have dropped, especially in New Hampshire, Hardy-Fanta said.

“It is kind of scary,” she said. “I think that at best, we have been treading water.”

Term Limits Backfire

Hardy-Fanta said term limits–which were supposed to offer newcomers opportunities for open seats–actually have reduced opportunities for women because “the turnover just devastates the ranks.” Bitter elections that oust female incumbents reduce the pipeline of potential senior officeholders, she said. Since male candidates outnumber women running for office, women’s numerical disadvantage is exacerbated by turnover.

Another factor that has held women back from electoral success, Hardy-Fanta contended, was the country’s pro-testosterone reaction to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “As soon as we went on war footing, women disappeared–except for Hillary,” she said.

No Gains in State Legislature

Kunin said she is impatient to see more women in office. “I just looked at the figures for [female] state legislators, and that number has hovered around 22 percent for the last four or five years; so there has been no increase there.”

Swift, who now consults on women in politics–among other issues–offered her own story as a case in point to participants. Swift rose meteorically in Massachusetts politics after winning a statehouse seat in her mid-20s. As governor, she earned the distinction of becoming the first chief executive of any state to deliver twins while holding office.

When she was already in statewide office Swift said she came across research that showed that older voters of both genders and all partisan persuasions “have serious reservations about women with young children as governor.” By that point, she said, it was too late for her to do much about it.

Elizabeth Mehren is New England bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times.

For more information:

John F. Kennedy Library–Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Women in Politics:

Rutgers Libraries Resources on Women and Gender: