Kathy Manderino has little reason to believe that, in the next 17 years, the number of women elected to office in Pennsylvania will be much higher than it is currently. This outlook may seem dour — even anachronistic — in the age of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. But Manderino, a Democratic state representative whose district includes parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery counties, is simply referencing a well-established norm throughout the state.
"Today, 27 of the 203 state [representatives] are women," she explains. That means 13 percent of Pennsylvania's state reps are female; only six states in the country have a lower proportion of women in their state legislatures than this. What's worse, says Manderino, is when she was first elected 17 years ago, the numbers weren't too dissimiliar: Twenty-one women were in the state House.
With the help of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization of Women (NOW), an organization called She Should Run is hoping to make our state and city government more chromosomally diverse. But is that goal viable, especially when programs similar to She Should Run — like the Political Parity Project and Progressive Majority — have already tried to make this happen, to practically no avail?
At the very least, it'll be an uphill battle. In Pennsylvania, a woman has never been elected governor; only two of the state's 21 members of Congress are female; and not a single woman in the state legislature holds a leadership position. All of this makes Pennsylvania one of the most male-dominated states in the country, according to She Should Run founder Siobhan "Sam" Bennett. Philadelphia, meanwhile, has never elected a woman as mayor, in contrast to Baltimore, Atlanta, Tampa and 203 other major cities with female mayors in 2009.
There are lots of theories about why this may be, ranging from the argument that men cling tightly to their seats in legislatures as well-paid as Pennsylvania's, to the simple idea that this is a very traditional state. She Should Run confronts the problem from a grassroots-empowerment angle: In her book It Takes a Candidate: Why Women Don't Run for Office (Cambridge University Press, 2005), author Jennifer Lawless posits that women lack equal political representation simply because party committees, colleagues and friends don't ask them to run for office as often as men. Additionally, a woman won't seek office until she's been propositioned an average of six times.
Bennett launched the organization in response to these clear-cut findings, giving it a similarly straightforward modus operandi: Ask many women to run, many times. "If you go out on the street and ask a guy to run for an open school board seat, research shows he'll probably say, 'Yeah, why not?' even if he's completely unqualified," says Bennett. "Ask an overqualified woman the same thing, and she'll say, 'No, I don't have the experience.'"
Philadelphia NOW voted to adopt the She Should Run method in early May, making it the first organization in Philadelphia to do so. Being this late to the game, however, means She Should Run can't affect the local results of either the May 18 primary or November's general election. But next time, it might.