Despite progress, females still face political challenges

Andrew Pritchard

In 2000, Minnesota voters elected the state’s first female member of Congress in the nearly 50 years since the Fargo Forum’s headline brought Democratic Rep. Coya Knutson’s career to an end.

“We’ve made progress, but I think it’s still hard for women to get elected,” said Minnesota playwright Kathy Ray, who presented her one-woman play about Knutson at the University’s Crookston campus in March.

Women hold four of Minnesota’s six constitutional offices. Twenty-four of the state’s 67 state senators are women, as are 35 of its 134 state representatives.

“Women have increased significantly in elected and appointed positions,” University political science professor Dara Strolovitch said.

Yet Dede Wolfson of the Minnesota Women’s Consortium said female candidates still face unique challenges.

“For most women, political life is not the end of the road for them,” she said.

Women often feel different responsibilities to their families than men do, she said, and male candidates are able to campaign without worrying as much about home responsibilities.

“Their wives deal with that, and they go out and campaign,” she said. “The women candidates do that and campaign.”

In the gubernatorial race, all four major Minnesota parties are running male candidates, but each chose a woman as his running mate.

“It says to me that they’re all trying to appeal to women in their campaigns, but none of them were willing to step aside and let the women run,” Wolfson said.

Strolovitch said those women’s role in the gubernatorial race is a “double-edged sword,” because the candidates want to be seen as supporting women in office, but no major party picked a woman as its gubernatorial candidate.

The Socialist Workers Party chose Kari Sachs for the governor’s race.

Five states currently have female governors. Major parties have endorsed 18 women nationwide in gubernatorial races.

“I think the significance of the four male candidates for governor picking female running mates is that they recognize themselves that having male and female perspectives on issues at the state level is beneficial,” Ray said.

However, she also said seeing the gubernatorial slates “feels like being in the passenger seat again.”

Women as voters

strolovitch said women’s political opinions are typically different from men’s on some issues.

“They’re not as pronounced as other breakdowns, particularly racial, but there are some differences,” she said.

Women are generally less likely to support military force, she said, and more likely to support social spending or government intervention in society and the economy on issues such as domestic violence, health care and gun control.

Wolfson said she agreed that women and men differ politically.

“Women are more concerned about everyday issues,” she said, such as schools, housing and crime. They are typically less supportive of increased military spending or invading other countries.

“Women look at the people who do the invading as their children,” she said.

Strolovitch said women are more likely than men to vote for Democrats, while men are more likely to vote Republican, though women divided about evenly between George W. Bush and Al Gore in the 2000 presidential race.

A poll released last week by the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Minnesota Public Radio showed a widening gender gap in the U.S. Senate race.

Women supported Democratic U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone 55 percent to 39 percent over Republican Norm Coleman. Men backed Coleman, 52 percent to 39 percent for Wellstone.

“I think it’s because most of the Democratic candidates emphasize the social issues more than the Republican candidates,” Wolfson said.

The same poll also showed women are more likely to favor Democratic state Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe in the gubernatorial race, while more men supported Republican state House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty and Independence Party candidate Tim Penny.

Wolfson said that as more women become successful in business, respect for them will change voters’ assessment of women in political offices.

“We’re moving toward that style of leadership, which is cooperation,” she said.

Ray said the biggest lesson of her play, in which Ray as Knutson “talks” to current Democratic U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, is women in office should focus on serving their constituents despite political obstacles.

“What she’s always telling Betty is to keep doing what she thinks is right,” Ray said, “because she’s the one the voters elected to represent them.”


The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Andrew Pritchard covers state politics and welcomes comments at [email protected]