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More women taking on Pa. politics, but men still dominate

State Sen. Lisa Baker, right, hugs Cindy Adams Dunn, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources secretary
Kat Bolus
State Sen. Lisa Baker, right, hugs Cindy Adams Dunn, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources secretary, during an event announcing the creation of Vosburg Neck State Park in Wyoming County. Now in her fifth term, Baker is part of a state General Assembly with 32% women members, the highest percentage in Pennsylvania history.

In 2007, newly elected Lisa Baker was the only woman state senator with a school-age child.

“All the others who were serving at that time were either married with no children, or grandmothers and their kids were out of the house, so the challenges I faced were much different from many of my female colleagues at that time,” recalled Baker, whose son was a freshman in high school.

The challenges included facing down male colleagues' attitudes about a mom’s ability to balance family and legislative demands.

“When I was first elected, I had a gentleman come up to me, who was from the Pittsburgh area, and ask me who was home watching my child,” Baker said. “I asked him who was home watching his, and he took a step back and apologized for asking me that question.”

Now in her fifth four-year term – the longest-tenured Senate Republican – Baker, a Luzerne County resident, is part of a legislature 32% female, the highest percentage in state history.

March is Women’s History Month, so WVIA spoke with female lawmakers and academics about women in state politics. Despite growing numbers and changing attitudes, many of the Baker's challenges persist for women seeking elected office today.

Scranton Mayor Paige Cognetti encountered similar biases after she first successfully ran for the office in 2019. When she gave birth to her first child one month later, Cognetti made headlines for planning to bring her infant daughter, Sloane, with her to work.

“There was one particular person who wrote two letters to the editor about how I was representative of the denigration of our society, and I belonged back at home with my baby. How dare I have my baby at work with me,” recalled Cognetti, Scranton's first woman mayor.

She didn’t take the criticism personally or let it stand in her way. She finished the remaining term of former Mayor Bill Courtright, who resigned and pleaded guilty to corruption charges. In 2021, voters overwhelmingly re-elected her to a full four-year term. Last summer, she and husband Ryan welcomed a second daughter, Brooke Anne.

The experience helps her appreciate the day-to-day challenges so many Americans face.

“Being a working mom is hard for every mom, and every parent, right? It's not just moms, it's all parents, trying to balance,” Cognetti said,

Cognetti also is part of a growing cohort in Pennsylvania politics, but men still overwhelmingly dominate the field.

A representative field?

Though a record number of women serve in the legislature, the number of elected women officeholders statewide falls far below the percentage of women in the state's population.

Census estimates from 2023 show females comprise the majority of Pennsylvania’s population, at 50.6%, but, according to Chatham University’s Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics women comprise 26% of the state’s Congressional delegation, 40% of state offices, 23% of mayors, 42% of school board members and 33% of judgeships.

Pennsylvania has never elected a woman governor or U.S. Senator. From 2015 to 2019, no women represented the state in Congress.

“We are still in a place where, you know, cultural barriers are quite real,” said Dana Brown, executive director of the Chatham center.

“I mean, if you talk to a lot of women in Pennsylvania who are thinking about running for office, they almost always consider family and family considerations,” Brown said. That includes caring for older family members and children.

The center focuses on educating and empowering women for public leadership. Its initiatives include Ready to Run, a program that trains women considering or running for political office. The training includes mentoring by politically involved women such as campaign professionals and officeholders.

Classes tend to attract 50 to 60 people in state or federal election years, but as many as 80 or 90 in municipal election years, Brown said.

“There was a woman who was running for school board, and she was knocking on doors, and she shared with me that after the first round of door knocking, she realized some of the questions she was getting were actually about her family,” Brown recalled. “So she actually invited her husband to come along and answer some of the family balance questions. And she's like, ‘Dana, I couldn't believe that that's what I had to do.’”

Kelly Dittmar, director of research at Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics, echoed the sentiment. She wrote “Rethinking Women’s Political Power,” a report that looks at issues facing women in several states.

“It absolutely came up in our interviews, not just in Pennsylvania,” Dittmar said.

“Women still bear the disproportionate brunt of caregiving responsibilities. So while we have absolutely seen evolution, in terms of men, in the domestic setting, taking more caregiving responsibilities, women still will report in public polls and studies that they are often still seen as the primary caregiver for children and even for the elderly,” Dittmar said.

For legislators, that poses many of the same problems working parents face in all fields, but also some specific to them, such as late-night or special sessions and erratic schedules, Dittmar noted.

In Bucks County, the state’s fourth-most populous, Democrat Diane M. Ellis-Marseglia chairs the county Board of Commissioners. First elected a commissioner in 2007, her political career began as a young mother in 1990, when she sought appointment to an open Neshaminy School Board seat.

“Of course, I had a six-week-old baby. And as crazy as you are with a six-week-old baby, I thought, ‘Oh, this is my opportunity,’” Ellis-Marseglia said. “And it just happened. I was the only one nobody knew. And so that's why they took a chance with me.”

At that point, childcare was not a worry. As Ellis-Marseglia moved on to township supervisor and commissioner and became a licensed social worker, balancing work and family became more challenging.

“With the school board, I had parents who lived two miles away, in-laws two miles away, it was at nighttime, I was a stay-at-home mom at that point. So it was okay,” she said.

When she became a supervisor, the now-divorced single mom found childcare more critical, and sometimes had to pay a babysitter.

“As a single mother, I didn't always have the money. And my parents sometimes stepped up and came and babysat. But the truth is, you really can't do it unless you either have the financial support or the family support to be able to do it,” Ellis-Marseglia said of pursuing a political career.

Baker agreed, noting these challenges are especially relevant for state lawmakers.

“The job requires frequent travel, overnight travel. And so you need a supportive spouse and network of family and friends if you have small children or are traveling,” Baker said.

“Many women don't see themselves considering that as a viable career because of the limitations of the duties taking you to Harrisburg, probably upwards of 60 overnights a year.”

Structural barriers

Cultural and social barriers may be a key factor to increased participation by women in politics, but structural barriers also remain.

“What political scientists have found is that historically, when we have strong party states, like Pennsylvania, doing the recruitment at the party level, they oftentimes will engage in something called negative gatekeeping,” Brown said.

That means parties tend to recruit candidates “from their very own localized, personalized, professional networks,” she said.

“And so if you have a system that was made by men, for men, particularly white men, and it's literally built into the party that way, well, then you're going to be recruiting folks that look like you,” she said.

Both parties have recruited more diverse candidates in recent decades, Brown said.

“But of course, all of that takes time,” she said.

Brown also noted Pennsylvania is among the few states with a full-time legislature, meeting most of the year and employing professional staffs in district and Capitol offices. That means elected representatives and senators are supposed to work full-time, a contrast with states where lawmakers meet only a few times a year and earn less.

Dittmar said professional legislatures offer better pay, but require a greater time commitment. Part-time legislatures pay less, which means lawmakers will almost certainly require another source of income, and that can negate the benefits of meeting less frequently.

Noting the question of changing Pennsylvania’s legislature is a fraught political topic, Brown says other changes could level the playing field for women. Multi-member voting districts and ranked-choice voting have yielded more positive results for female candidates, Brown said.

“So there's definitely institutional reforms Pennsylvania could take if we want to actually diversify our legislature and have it be more reflective of who we are as Pennsylvanians,” she said.

Power structures

The number of women holding office is not the only factor to consider, Dittmar said.

“We've done research to show that having women in these positions of power can yield symbolic and substantive outcomes that are better for women writ large and better for democracy. But it is just one indicator, and one that is alone, not sufficient to really understand power,” she said.

Whether a role carries leadership responsibilities within the lawmaking body or party are key considerations, Dittmar said. She said many non-elected roles carry substantial power, notably party leaders, lobbyists, donors, advocates and activists. Around the state, white men dominate many county-level party machines, she said.

“All of these folks have a lot of influence on things like political agendas, political outcomes, and they often determine who’s running and winning and serving and representing,” Dittmar said.

This is not to say there haven’t been some notable advances: Rep. Joanna McClinton of Philadelphia became the first House Speaker last year. Philadelphians elected Cherelle Parker in November as the city's first female mayor. Both are Black.

“But still, you know, these are recent gains,” Dittmar said.

“Why not think about a woman for governor, a woman for Senate? Well, when those conversations are being had, largely behind the scenes, about who's in line, or who's best situated to run statewide, those conversations are being had among white men who've been either waiting for a long time or who are deemed as sort of kingmakers or decision makers,” Dittmar said. “And they're not considering the ways in which women, in fact, have proven their electability and capacity to be successful at the statewide level.”

Women have had success fighting those structures in several notable cases.

In Scranton, Cognetti, normally a Democrat, ran for mayor as an independent in 2019, citing concerns with the local party’s closed caucus nomination process. In Allegheny County, Dittmar said progressive women candidates have similarly challenged a male-dominated party hierarchy to get nominated and elected.

Self-doubt a factor

Internalized self-doubt keeps other women from ever running for office.

“I think the biggest bias is women's own,” Ellis-Marseglia said. “They often will say ‘Oh, I don't know if I'm smart enough for that.’ Or ‘I don't know if I have the time for that,’’ she said, despite being adept at juggling multiple priorities in other areas of their lives.

Dittmar has seen that in her research.

“Certainly there is evidence that women either discount their qualifications, or even more likely, they see that these institutions don't value them, in other words, that there's bias within these institutions. And they have the perception, which is based on real biases, that they need to be overqualified” compared to male candidates, Dittmar said.

“Those are self-perceptions that can make it harder for women to ultimately make the decision to even want to enter a race for elective office,” she said.

She cautioned that these perceptions are formed by the systems women observe and shouldn’t be dismissed as mere internal conflict.

“If you put that on the women themselves, you never address the structural challenges that could open doors and make it more likely that women see running and winning as a possibility,” Dittmar said.

Ellis-Marseglia said she sees progress with more women in office since she got into the field.

“Well, first of all, I was pretty much the only woman all the time, and that doesn't happen anymore. I'm not the only one we have,” she said. “Most of our department heads now are women. That was unheard of when I started, I don't know that I even knew a woman like township manager or county manager or anything. So things have changed dramatically that way.”

‘I had a unique skill set’

State Treasurer Stacy Garrity came to politics later in life, after a successful career in the U.S. Army Reserve – which included three combat deployments to the Middle East – and a civilian career at Global Tungsten & Powders Corp., where she rose to become a vice president.

“At first, it was nice to scale back to just my full time, private sector position. But it didn't take me very long to feel the need to serve,” she said. “I felt like I had a unique skill set to continue work in public service.”

In 2019, Garrity unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination in a special election to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Tom Marino. The following year, she ran for treasurer against Democrat Joe Torsella. In a significant upset, she became the first challenger to unseat an incumbent in a statewide race in decades. She seeks re-election this year.

Garrity acknowledged encountering sexism and misogyny, but feels the military gave her valuable opportunities to advance, which ultimately prepared her for politics.

“I want people to understand that if I can do it, they can do it, too,"Garrity said. "And more generally, I would just say, you know, go for it, get out there and meet people who can help point you in the right direction, and then really go for it. Because with everything in life, there's going to be obstacles, but you have to find a way to push through them.”

‘You better run’

In November, Democrat Christa Caceres became the first woman in 30 years elected to Pike County’s Board of Commissioners, and the board’s first ever person of color.

She also acknowledges women often must convince themselves and voters they can govern.

“When a man speaks to his strength, and his abilities, or his connections, or, you know, his wealth or whatever, we never question or challenge them,” she said. “But with women, we’re always second guessed. I did encounter that a bit during this campaign, but I overcame it.”

Caceres credits several mentors for helping recruit and encourage her.

“Fortunately for me, there was no shortage of incredible women who absolutely held the door open for me and said, ‘You better run,’” Caceres said.

“They understood what the challenges were and are, and they're always a phone call away for me,” Caceres said.

Caceres also had a blunt message for any women looking to enter politics.

“I would just say be realistic, you know, it's still a man's game,” she said. “Trying to climb this ladder, it's certainly not for the faint of heart.”

Still, she believes progress will continue and more women must have a seat at the table.

“It's up to us to continue to increase those numbers. I would love to see it more representative of where we are in the Commonwealth, I would love to see it closer to 50%,” she said.

Women in government in Pa.
Courtesy Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University
This graphic by the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University shows the number of women serving in elected office in the state as of September 2023.

Roger DuPuis joins WVIA News from the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader. His 24 years of experience in journalism, as both a reporter and editor, included several years at The Scranton Times-Tribune. His beat assignments have ranged from breaking news, local government and politics, to business, healthcare, and transportation. He has a lifelong interest in urban transit, particularly light rail, and authored a book about Philadelphia's trolley system.

You can email Roger at rogerdupuis@wvia.org