Women Still Underrepresented in Virginia Politics

By Paige Baxter and Alix Hines

Capital News Service

[Editor’s note: This is a special report about women in politics. It also includes an interactive timeline; charts documenting the underrepresentation of women in the Virginia General Assembly and every state; avideo of three politically involved women discussing the issue; and a sidebar about plans to build a monument honoring Virginia women on the state Capitol grounds.]

Historical marker in Richmond. (Photo by Paige Baxter, CNS)
Historical marker in Richmond. (Photo by Paige Baxter, CNS)

By Paige Baxter and Alix Hines

Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Chapman Catt and Lucy Stone were among the national leaders of the suffragist movement in the United States. But several Virginians also paved the way for women in politics today.

Ellen Glasgow, Adèle Clark and Lila Meade Valentine were among the women who joined to create Virginia’s Equal Suffrage League. Later, that organization became the League of Women Voters of Virginia, which is dedicated to educating all citizens about civic issues.

In 1924, just four years after women gained the right to vote, two women were elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. Today, nearly nine decades later, the number of female delegates stands at 19, the highest it’s ever been.

Still, that’s 19 out of 100 House members – a far cry from parity in a state where 50.9 percent of the population is female.

Underrepresentation is even worse in the 40-member Virginia Senate, where women hold six seats – just 15 percent. The number of female senators has dropped from a few years ago, when it stood at eight.

It’s difficult for women to get elected

“Typically, the only reasons women usually got into office were that they either inherited seats by death or actually got elected by a mess-up,” said Deirdre Condit, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Before the 1970s, women were put on the ballot as “sacrificial lambs,” as Condit called them. Political parties chose women as candidates knowing they were unlikely to win the seat.

“They wouldn’t give them any support, give them any money, because they were saying, ‘Well, she’s not going to win,’” Condit said.

This changed somewhat in the 1970s when the national Democratic Party adopted a platform mandating that half of all delegates to a political convention had to be women. That was the starting point in the gap between the number of Republican women and Democratic women in office, Condit said.

She cited another reason women have lagged in the GOP: “The Republican Party has historically embraced policies, perspectives and theoretical frameworks that have their origins in the oppression and subordination of women.”

Women are more inclined to align with Democrats because of the fight over women’s reproductive rights, Condit said.

Now it is common for women to run for office. However, when they do, women typically do so much later in life compared with men, Condit said. The average age for women running for office is 42; for men, around 31.

That’s because women often must juggle other priorities – such as a children, a husband and a career – along with political service. Women often start off as PTA presidents or school board members and later make their way into higher elected positions, Condit said.

One result, she said, is that men have longer political careers than women and more time to move up in the political food chain.

McClellan: ‘Balancing all the balls in the air’

Delegate Jennifer McClellan of Richmond

Delegate Jennifer McClellan of Richmond

Delegate Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, said running for office and getting elected is no longer an issue for women. The real issue is making tough decisions about family and a career.

“The barriers are not so much you have to overcome people not wanting you there, but now women have so many more options of what they can do. The problem now is balancing all the balls that we can have in the air,” McClellan said.

She said it’s difficult to recruit women to run for office because of the time commitment: Being a state legislator can be an all-consuming part-time job in addition to your regular career. And with the General Assembly convening every January, it means sacrificing two months a year away from family and that career.

McClellan knows that juggling act all too well. She’s a mother, a wife, a lawyer for Verizon and a state delegate.

Her path to the General Assembly began when, as a University of Richmond student, she volunteered on Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992. Throughout her college days, McClellan helped out on numerous campaigns such as Tim Kaine’s bid for lieutenant governor. So when she ran for the Virginia House in 2005, she was already familiar with the political scene.

A more cooperative approach to politics

Men often call politics a contact sport. Some say women bring a different spirit – of more cooperation and collaboration – into public office.

For example, McClellan hosted a “fuzzy slipper party”: She hosted both Democratic and Republican delegates to her home one evening – a chance for them to socialize and forget about party affiliation.

That happens in Washington, D.C., too, Condit noted. U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer of California holds dinner parties for women officeholders of all political stripes to get together and relax. Women forget about which party they belong to and bridge the political gap.

That’s not to say female lawmakers are unanimous in their political convictions on issues such as reproductive rights. During the Virginia General Assembly’s 2012 session, women legislators introduced some of the measures targeting abortion. For example, Delegate Kathy Byron, R-Lynchburg, sponsored the bill requiring women to get an ultrasound before having an abortion.

As a woman, McClellan had a personal connection to such legislation, including a bill by Delegate Bob Marshall, R-Manassas, to grant a fetus the rights of a person.

Coincidentally, as legislators were considering Marshall’s bill, McClellan was pregnant – but she was keeping it a secret from the general public.

“I’m the type of person that when I am interested in something, I have to know everything there is about it. So when I got pregnant, I researched every possible thing that could happen. I discovered abortion laws don’t just apply to what people think they apply to; they apply in case of a miscarriage,” McClellan said.

Critics said that under the “personhood bill,” a woman could be held liable if she terminated a pregnancy – and maybe even if she had a miscarriage.

Later, the Family Foundation of Virginia, an anti-abortion group, outed McClellan’s pregnancy on its blog.

When Marshall’s bill was being debated on the House floor, McClellan gave an emotional speech against it. She said she was thinking about how the bill could apply to her if she were to have a miscarriage.

McClellan gave her speech knowing that this bill and other women’s issues affect her in a way that they could not affect Marshall. She said she spoke out because she knew the facts.

‘Not just men making decisions’

To address the underrepresentation of women in Virginia government, organizations like the League of Women Voters have set out to encourage women to run for office.

“If you look at who’s in the House and who’s in the Senate, you see the numbers are picking up. You see that it’s not just men that are making decisions,” said Lynn Gordon, president of the League of Women Voters of Virginia. But she said a lot of work still must be done.

The league is a national organization founded by Carrie Chapman Catt just six months before women won the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. The league’s website notes that it began as a “political experiment” to help women exercise their right to vote.

Today, the league still prides itself on educating citizens about the issues before casting a vote.

Anne Sterling, a member of the Virginia league, said the group’s initial mission was to prevent husbands from dictating how their wives should vote.

In Virginia, the League of Women Voters began as the Equal Suffrage League. By 1915, Adèle Clark (she preferred the accent mark as a sign of distinction) became the first president of Virginia’s League of Women Voters. Between 1912 and 1916, the league brought an equal suffrage bill to the floor of the General Assembly. Each time the bill was killed.

Congress proposed the 19th Amendment on June 4, 1919. It became law on Aug. 18, 1920, when Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment. Virginia was not among those states. In fact, Virginia didn’t approve the amendment until Feb. 21, 1952, when the point was moot.

The league’s focus since then has changed. “The whole idea starting out was to educate women to use the right to vote,” Gordon said. “Over the years, it’s moved to just educating citizens in general.”

During this year’s legislative session, for example, the league expressed concerns about bills requiring people to show a photo ID before voting. “Our view is that voting should be made accessible to all – all that are qualified to vote,” Gordon said.

The league also is involved in registering voters and in urging people to vote for the candidates of their choice. In the 2008 presidential election, the group was instrumental in promoting voter turnout. It got 10,000 election officials to help voters get to the polls and cast ballots.

“We are still seen as the experts on elections and voting issues,” Sterling said.

Looking to the future, the league recognizes that times are changing and so are the issues. The group knows it must diversify – and maybe even drop “women” from its name.

“We need younger people desperately. If younger people don’t join us, eventually we are just going to fade off into history, and we just can’t afford to do that,” Sterling said.

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