Guide Places Keys to Statehouses in Women's Reach

Only five women occupy governors' offices today and only 19 have ever been governors because men and women still don't feel comfortable with women seeking full executive power. A report tells women how to strategize and win the top state prize.

Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner

(WOMENSENEWS)-Thirty-six gubernatorial races in 2002 will give women who have been waiting for the chance to make the run of their lives. For women seeking elected office, the governor's mansion is the political equivalent of the castle on the hill-beckoning in the distance but often unattainable.

Women have taken significant strides in winning elected offices in their states, in the U.S. House of Representatives and in the Senate. The governor's office is the most daunting and the least welcoming to women because it is seen as a seat of power and ultimate authority-and to most voters, that means men.

A new report and guide, “Keys to the Governor's Office,” says that next to the U.S. presidency, the perceived seat of ultimate and singular national power, the state governor's office is the most difficult for women to capture. Only five women currently are governors, and throughout U.S. history, only 19 have occupied a governor's mansion.

Over time, winning more governors' races will help more women demonstrate that they have the requisite executive and financial skills and are ready for the presidency, according to the report by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation. But to get to the governor's office, women have to work harder than men and show greater ability, experience, financial savvy and decisiveness. In all respects, the bar is higher for women and they must overcome more voter skepticism.

Women also must do what does not come naturally: trumpet their achievements and own their ambition, cut deals and work with insiders, plus prove they can raise money, all the while being caring, honest, ethical and projecting concern for families and social issues. If they are single, they should publicize other family ties and family issues.

“The most important measure of a candidate's seriousness is her proven ability to raise money,” the report says. “If you can, party leaders will take you seriously. If you can't, they won't.”

Report Unravels Voters' Complex Reactions to Women Seeking Power

And they must get more educated young women out to vote because young men, white senior citizens and homemakers prefer male governors. Across the board, men prefer a male candidate to a female candidate, while women are ambivalent in their gender preference in candidates, the report says.

“Women need to find ways to make voters comfortable as nontraditional candidates,” Lee said. “When voters were asked to close their eyes and imagine a governor, they automatically imagine a man. We need a significant number of women in executive positions to change those perceptions.”

The report adds that the state's top executive office has been virtually off-limits to women because voters still perceive them as not being tough, shrewd and experienced enough to handle crises, balance budgets, make deals and knock heads together when necessary. At the same time, women are perceived positively as being outsiders, caring, collaborative and effective, especially when it comes to social issues.

The key is balance.

“As I understood more about the paths to power, it was clear that electing a woman president would become a reality only after we unraveled voters' complex reactions to a woman seeking full executive authority,” said Barbara Lee, president of The Barbara Lee Family Foundation.

Chart: Issues and situations in which voters trust female candidates more than male candidates

The document analyzes issues, voter attitudes and voting trends and provides a guide for women candidates, issue advocates, campaign professionals and party organizations seeking to develop winning strategies.

“Given the few examples of women chief executives in the public and private sectors, women candidates for governor must be able to demonstrate successful executive experience”-more so than men, says the report.

The power of the governor's office also makes it difficult for women to win, Lee said. “People aren't used to giving women the last word. If you look at Fortune 500 or 1,000 companies, the number of women executives is very, very small,” Lee added.

When Some Men Visit Delaware's Governor, They Do a Double-Take

Delaware's new governor, Democrat Ruth Ann Minner, agrees. “When some men visit the office, a look flashes across their face, saying ‘Oh, God, it really is a woman serving,' but women getting elected opens the door for more women to serve.”

The other woman holding a statewide elected office in Delaware, Republican Attorney General M. Jane Brady, won by establishing a reputation as a tough prosecutor and emphasizing crime victim's rights. Brady added that she won by first losing a race for a U.S. Senate seat. That defeat nevertheless gave her statewide name recognition, and from that she built a strong, grassroots campaign.

Chart: Voter preferences on candidate gender

The Barbara Lee Family Foundation commissioned the two-year research project conducted by Democratic pollster Celinda Lake of Lake Snell Perry and Associates, Republican pollster Linda DiVall, founder of American Viewpoint Inc., and Democrat Mary Hughes, president of Staton Hughes. The study analyzed 1998 exit poll data and conducted 10 focus groups in February and March 2000. They conducted a national survey and interviews with candidates, campaign staff, consultants and reporters in 10 states where women ran for governor in 1998.

In addition to Gov. Minner in Delaware, the other women governors are Democrat Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire and Republicans Jane Dee Hull in Arizona, Judy Martz in Montana and Jane Swift in Massachusetts. Swift, the former lieutenant governor, took over after her predecessor was named ambassador to Canada.

Jane Swift Epitomizes Problem of Woman Politican With Young Children

Swift epitomizes the problem faced by women candidates with young children because voters view women as caregivers first, political figures second. Swift has one toddler and last month gave birth to twins. She has been plagued by charges of using state staff for babysitting, and some question whether a woman with young children can be an effective governor.

The report says voters prefer women governors with adult children, believing mothers will be torn between caring for their children and carrying out state duties. The same is not true of male governors; voters believe their wives or others will take care of their children.

The guide underscores obstacles to women candidates in terms of preparation, management style, leadership style, family matters and other issues. And it encourages them to capitalize on their strengths and public perceptions of their honesty and ability to deal with education and social issues.

Other findings:

  • Women must be tough when necessary, but in a way that makes the public comfortable. “Female candidates walk a tightrope in attempting to present a persona that's neither too strong and aggressive-too ‘male'-nor too soft. ... Voters are most comfortable when they see a woman candidate standing up on behalf of others.”
  • Party affiliation is more important than gender; it is more influential for voters than any other factor including gender.
  • Voters think of a Republican woman as a Republican first, a woman second. Democratic women are more often seen as a woman first, then as a Democrat.
  • Regardless of gender, voters trust Republican candidates more on fiscal issues. Republican women are viewed as better crisis managers than Democratic women.
  • Women candidates, regardless of party, are seen as better than men-by double-digit margins-in dealing with social programs, improving education and putting people's interests above special interests.

Voters See Republicans as More Fiscally Responsible Than Democrats

“I think Republicans have succeeded in posing themselves as proponents of fiscal responsibility, so that benefit accrues to Republican women,” Lee said. “Democrats are more often associated with social programs such as education and health care.”

The report also found that the media could be another obstacle to women candidates by focusing on the appearance and superficial aspects of the candidate.

“The press always asked substantive questions to the male candidates and less to me,” Minner said. “The papers mostly quoted my opponent, but they just made comments about me; they never quoted me.”

Pollster Hughes found the findings sobering. “Popular culture constantly exhorts women to say ‘you've come a long way,' but if you look at the number of women executives at Fortune 500 companies or the number of governors, you see how far we have to still go.”

Pollster DiVall said she has studied hindering stereotypes for 20 years, but they persist. “You'd think reservations about women in executive positions would be reduced substantially, but they still exist,” she said.

“Women must be aware of stereotypes. We found in campaigns they underestimated the role of gender,” Lee said. “Women candidates need to take the keys in the guide, study them and share them with campaign professionals to take them into consideration when planning strategies.”

“There are a record number of women who are poised and positioned through their experience as lieutenant governor and other offices to run in the near future,” Lee said. “Our success will build on success.”

The report cites key challenges:

Executive Leadership: Given the few examples of women chief executives in the public and private sector, women candidates for governor must be able to demonstrate successful executive experience.

Preparation: Women need to provide more evidence than men of financial and crisis management expertise to persuade voters they're as “qualified” or “ready” to be governor.

Outsiders With Insider Connections: Women are presumed to be “outside” the harsh push and pull of politics, but must have inside connections to mount statewide campaigns.

Management Style-Collaborative or Decisive: Voters ask, Is a woman who builds consensus by being inclusive able to make the executive decisions required of a governor?

Leadership Style-Tough but Caring: Women benefit from demonstrating both the “toughness” to stand up to competing interest groups and the “caring” to champion a family issues agenda.

Family Matters: Voters are both curious and make assumptions about a woman candidate and her family. They wonder about who comes first, the candidate's family or the public. They prefer candidates to be married and to have children, but single women can emphasize other family relationships and family issues.

Voter Trends: Key groups of voters have distinct gender preferences for gubernatorial candidates. White senior citizens and younger men are least likely to vote for women; women are ambivalent. Younger, college-educated, working women are the most likely to vote for women candidates.

Vaishalee Mishra is a journalist in New York.

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Gov. Ruth Ann Minner of Delaware:

The Web site for the report, “Keys to the Governor's Office,” is under construction. For more information about the report from the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, write to [email protected]