Barbara Palmer

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)–A woman has never been elected to represent the people of the 4th congressional district in Alabama, a rural stretch of land north of Birmingham that spans the width of the state, from Georgia to Mississippi.

And with an eye on the area’s history and demographics, researchers have recently rated it the least likely of any district to send a woman to the U.S. House of Representatives.

But don’t tell that to Democrat Barbara Bobo, a 64-year-old newspaper publisher hoping to win the seat in the November midterm elections.

A social liberal and a fiscal conservative, she is running an uphill campaign against Republican Rep. Robert Aderholt, a five-term religious conservative who won his last race for reelection with 75 percent of the vote.

“I’m not in this race on a lark,” Bobo said. “I have a strong feeling that the president and the war are so unpopular, not just across the country, but also here in Alabama.”

Political science professors Barbara Palmer of American University in Washington, D.C., and Dennis Simon of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, however, just published a study showing that the turf that Bobo has staked out is the toughest any female politician can select.

Palmer and Simon wrote their book, “Breaking the Political Glass Ceiling: Women and Congressional Elections” before Bobo kicked off her campaign, so their analysis is no reflection on her candidacy. But in doing their research, they found that women have the hardest time winning election to the House in rural, socially conservative and low-income districts like Bobo’s.

The archetypal women-friendly district, by contrast, is California’s 8th district, a wealthy, diverse and highly educated part of San Francisco that is home to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Data from 1956 through 2004

Palmer and Simon mined data from every congressional election involving a female candidate from 1956 through 2004.

One of the biggest deterrents to female congressional hopefuls is the power of incumbency, which affects candidates of both genders because sitting office holders enjoy advantages in areas like name recognition and fund-raising prowess. That hurdle has been cemented into a structural barrier in many states where legislators have redrawn district lines with the goal of protecting incumbents, most of whom are men.

Beyond incumbency, Palmer and Simon found that white women have faced additional barriers in certain kinds of districts; those where residents are rural, low income and socially conservative. The authors found no difference among the types of districts that elect people of color–male or female–to the House.

After examining 36,000 candidacies and 15,000 elections, Simon and Palmer ranked all 435 congressional districts based on their level of “women-friendliness,” a scale they hope will be used to narrow the persistent gender gap in Congress.

Women–who are 52 percent of the population–currently hold 15 percent of the seats in the House. Republican women have had a particularly difficult time; among those currently serving, they number only 24, or about half as many as female House Democrats at 43 seats.

Liberal Stereotype Affects Primaries

The paucity of female Republican representatives is not because the GOP is less inclined to elect women, Palmer told Women’s eNews. Rather, it’s because women are perceived to be more liberal than men. That stereotype hurts Republican women because the conservative voters who dominate Republican primary elections are less likely to back a candidate they perceive as liberal.

Democratic women, on the other hand, have benefited from the stereotype because they too are seen as more liberal, an advantage in primaries dominated by the liberal base of their party.

The study points out the 18 districts–10 of which are now represented by men–that are most likely to elect a woman. Many are in or near cities on the West Coast, such as San Francisco, and along the Northeast corridor, such as New York and Washington, D.C.

The 153 districts rated least likely to elect a woman include small Southern towns such as Paducah, Ken., Asheville, N.C., and Norman, Okla.

Advocates of gender parity in government–an effort that has lagged behind the same push in the private sector–said the findings will help them set strategy.

“It’s an excellent tool for identifying where women are more likely to be elected,” said Pat Carpenter, executive director of The WISH List, an organization in Alexandria, Va., that helps elect pro-choice Republican women to office. “Obviously we’re going to go duck hunting where the ducks can get elected.”

The authors point out women who have proven exceptions to their ratings: Stephanie Herseth, who represents the entire state of South Dakota, Cathy McMorris, who represents the rural eastern end of Washington state, and Virginia Foxx, who represents the rural, northwestern corner of North Carolina.

That is why some found the study not all that useful.

‘Hard to Paint National Picture’

“Every race is won district by district,” said Lisa Ziriax, spokesperson for The National Federation of Republican Woman in Alexandria, Va., which helps elects Republican women to office. “It’s hard to paint a national picture on this.”

She said officials in her organization believe that a strong female candidate can win in any district, and dismissed the idea that structural problems hinder women from approaching parity. In every election since 1990, when Republican women held nine seats, Republican women have either gained seats or held their ground. In previous decades, however, Republican women made progress in fits and starts, at times picking up seats and subsequently losing some of them.

But Palmer and Simon offer a radical solution that they say could lead to more rapid progress for women in Congress: encouraging state legislators to take gender into account when they redraw district lines during the redistricting process, just as many do with racial data to elect more people of color to office.

“You can gender-gerrymander,” Palmer said. “You can draw district lines to make it more or less friendly to a woman candidate based on these demographic factors.”

The suggestion has been raised before, said Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services, a political consulting firm in Washington, D.C. But he said it has been dismissed because women, unlike minority groups, do not live in concentrated communities that can be incorporated into a single congressional district.

Even if they did, the initial data issued by the Census Bureau is not broken down by gender, as it is by race, he added. The government’s gender-specific census information only comes after redistricting has been completed in many states.

But this study could make these points moot because it analyzes a district’s propensity to elect a woman to office not by its residents’ gender but by other characteristics such as geographic location, diversity, and income and education levels.

Conceded Brace: “There’s potential there.”

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at [email protected].

For more information:

Southern Methodist University–SMU News
Ms. Smith Goes to Washington
Breaking the Political Glass Ceiling:

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
Center for American Women and Politics:

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