Gender might play a role in voter decisions

by Megan Boldt

Nationwide, the number of female legislators in the federal governments is at an all-time high. But in Minnesota that figure is a bit behind.
Minnesota has sent only one woman to the nation’s capitol — that was in 1955. But that record might be broken after the Fourth District U.S. Congressional District race. Two of the three candidates are female.
Does the gender card matter to voters?
The answer appears to be yes.
Currently 65 women serve in the U.S. Congress — nine in the Senate and 56 in the House.
But percentage-wise those statistics are still far from representative of the population. Women hold 9 percent of the U.S. Senate seats and 13 percent in the U.S. House.
University political science professor Bill Flanigan said the effect of gender on elections is a complicated one. When a well-known, experienced politician runs voters respect that and gender generally isn’t an issue, he said. But it reverses when a candidate is an unknown.
“When the candidate isn’t as well known, there’s a chance the stereotypical role of gender can creep in,” Flanigan said, explaining that voters might look more skeptically at female candidates.
Effects of gender in elections
Minnesota’s record of sending women to Congress might change in the Fourth U.S. Congressional District next week. Two of the three candidates are female — somewhat of a novelty in the St. Paul area. Both DFLer Betty McCollum and Republican candidate Linda Runbeck have mixed opinions and feelings about attitudes toward gender in the upcoming election.
Runbeck said she sees gender as an issue in politics today. She said it sometimes takes 20 years to run for federal office and that is probably why women are just emerging into the national political scene.
But, Runbeck said, gender shouldn’t be the sole factor in elections.
“We don’t have to compromise quality and competence. We have (quality and competence) in today’s candidates,” she said.
On the other hand, McCollum said the media’s coverage has made gender an issue in this year’s election. She said gender should not be an issue when looking at candidates.
She did say there are some voters out there who are uncomfortable voting for female candidates, but feels that population is small.
“No one has ever said they are voting for me solely because I’m a woman,” McCollum said.
Minnesota’s past record
In the 1950s, Coya Knutson was the first, and only, woman from Minnesota elected to serve in the U.S. Congress. At the time Knutson already had a distinguished public service record.
She became the chair of the Red Lake County DFL party and served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention.
In 1950, she won a seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives and four years later took the Republican incumbent’s seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. At Capitol Hill, she advocated for family farm issues and pushed for a federally supported school lunch program. She lost re-election in 1958.
One other woman did serve in the U.S. Senate, but was not elected by the people in Minnesota. In 1978, Gov. Wendell Anderson appointed Muriel Humphrey to fill the vacant U.S. Senate seat left by her late husband, Hubert Humphrey II.
Minnesota’s record is similar to its surrounding states. Wisconsin has elected one congresswoman who is currently serving the state. The Dakotas have each appointed one female to serve the remainder of a congressman’s term but have not elected a woman. Iowa has never sent a woman to the capitol.
McCollum said she doesn’t think Minnesota’s record indicates a lack of support for female candidates — it’s just a lack of open seats.
“Minnesota has had a tradition of electing people and keeping them in office,” McCollum said.
She pointed to the late Fourth Congressional District Rep. Bruce Vento as an example. Vento, a 24-year U.S. House veteran, died last Thursday of a rare form of lung cancer. McCollum said he did a good job of communicating and listening to all his constituency groups including women.
Flanigan agreed that there have been few open seats for women to vie for, particularly in the metro area and the Eighth Congressional District.
Is there a difference?
With the increasing number of women in office some voters and candidates grapple with the question whether these congresswomen can offer something their male counterparts cannot.
McCollum said she struggles with the issue. At first she thought no; she could offer the exact same things a male legislator could. But then she changed her mind.
As a North St. Paul city councilwoman and a state representative, women from other districts have called McCollum about safety issues, pay discrimination and domestic violence.
“They called me because I was another woman,” McCollum said. “They knew I would understand and wouldn’t be patronizing.”
Runbeck also said she thought an increased female presence on Capitol Hill would make a difference. She said there would be stronger work ethic because women usually work harder.
She said the issues brought up by female legislators would be different too. With almost 90 percent of the legislators being male, Runbeck said, the work done has a slant to it.
“There will be a little more sanity and civility if more women are elected,” Runbeck said. “Even the joke-telling would be different.”

Megan Boldt covers politics and welcomes comments at [email protected] She can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3235