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Female candidates still face political barriers

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By Megan Banta

Though women are running in and winning political races throughout the country, some who seek office say their gender can present challenges — but advantages as well.

Women get closer to equal political footing with men each election year, said Robert Schmuhl, a professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame.

"You certainly saw that in 2008 with Hillary's razor-thin loss to Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination," Schmuhl said of Democrat Hillary Clinton. "Going into 2012, Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin seem to have devoted followings (among Republicans). The landscape is changing."

But Rachel Gorlin, a Washington, D.C.-based Democratic campaign strategist, said women still have to work around stereotypes that they are not capable of making tough decisions and concerns that their roles as mothers and homemakers might impede their ability to do their jobs.

"I think that the glass ceiling has to do with the type of job that women still have a difficult time getting elected to," Gorlin said. "That's executive office — governor, president, even mayor."

Women have made progress in American politics since Susanna Medora Salter became the first female elected to any political office when she was chosen as mayor of Argonia, Kan., in 1887.

In Indiana, Becky Skillman serves as the first elected female lieutenant governor. In 2008, Jill Long Thompson was the first woman to win a major party nomination for governor. And this year, Melina Kennedy is running for mayor of Indianapolis, which never has had a female leader.

Long Thompson, who served in Congress from 1989 to 1994, said that while she believes the glass ceiling no longer exists, gender is still a factor that a female candidate has to deal with.

Long Thompson said when she ran for governor, she learned not to appear with her husband because it created the perception that he was the candidate.

"There have been times when my husband and I have appeared together and people have approached us and asked him questions about topics of which he was not particularly informed," Long Thompson said. "Interestingly, though, when I have been on his flights — my husband is an airline pilot — no one has ever approached me and asked me about an airplane."

Long Thompson said this is because of accepted perceptions about the roles of men and women.

It is these perceptions that female candidates must contend with, Gorlin said.

Gorlin referenced an ad Clinton ran during her campaign for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.

"It's 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep, but there's a phone in the White House and it's ringing," the ad says. "Something's happening in the world. Your vote will decide who answers that call."

The point was not just to make voters think about which candidate they would want to be on the other end of that call. The ad also sought to show that Clinton would be on the job at all times.

Gorlin said the message was effective because voters do consider that female candidates are not only politicians but also mothers and they do have concerns about what a woman will place first — her family or her job.

"They want to make sure that if you have a crisis, like there's a riot in a jail, and at the same time your kid is sick, what are you going to do? You have to show that you can handle both of these things if you're a woman, and men just don't," Gorlin said. "No one's going to be asking them about the tradeoff."

But Long Thompson said women's traditional roles as homemakers and mothers can be seen as an asset rather than a reason to vote against a female candidate.

She said the ability to balance the responsibilities of motherhood and the workplace makes women ideal for executive office.

"Many men also multitask and are good at keeping a lot of balls balanced in the air simultaneously," Long Thompson said. "But the unique responsibilities of mother and managing households, I think, really make a number of women uniquely capable of leadership."

These responsibilities include balancing the family budget, a skill that Skillman said could carry over into forming the budget of a city, state or country.

And Kennedy, the Indianapolis mayoral candidate, said the responsibilities of motherhood provide women with a unique view.

"To balance motherhood and the challenges that mothers face brings a perspective that I think is a valuable one," Kennedy said.

Gorlin said when she worked for Susan Bysiewicz, who was running for secretary of state in Connecticut, the campaign ran an ad narrated by Bysiewicz's daughter to show that her family was an asset and that her skills as a mother could translate into public office.

But Gorlin said even after taking one stereotype head-on, female candidates still have to combat the idea that women cannot lead and make tough decisions.

"It's awful, but it's true what they say, that women have to be twice as qualified as men," she said. "It's very important to have those things in your background that show that you actually have been in charge."

Skillman said that although she knows women have to work twice as hard as men, she has never experienced gender bias.

Kennedy said she focuses on the issues, not her gender, when she campaigns because people vote for candidate they agree with regardless of gender.

This works because voters' political judgments are based not on a candidate's gender but on a candidate's qualifications, how much experience she has, and whether or not she has a specific agenda, Schmuhl said.

Gorlin said Kennedy's race against current Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard will be one to watch. She said if Kennedy is elected, that could serve as an indicator for the future of women in politics.

"If Indianapolis can elect a woman mayor," Gorlin said, "I think that's going to say a lot about the potential for women candidates, to not have to be women candidates anymore — to be candidates who happen to be women."

The above is one of an ongoing series of reports from the Indiana Statehouse by students at the Franklin College Pulliam School of Journalism.

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