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North Hills Monthly

Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics Focused on Getting Females into Office

Apr 30, 2018 04:59PM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

Dr. Jennie Sweet-Cushman

Almost 100 years after the 19th Amendment was ratified granting women the right to vote, it might be expected that the number of women who hold elected political office is equal to that of men. But nationwide, and especially in Pennsylvania, women are significantly underrepresented in public leadership. Dr. Jennie Sweet-Cushman, assistant professor of political science at Chatham University and assistant director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics, explains how the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization is providing educational and training opportunities for women interested in running for office.

North Hills Monthly (NHM): What is PCWP’s affiliation with Chatham University?

Dr. Jennie Sweet-Cushman (Sweet-Cushman): We are housed at the university, and so we are an endowed center; the Hillman Foundation has endowed us, and Chatham hosts us.

NHM: What is the history of PCWP?

Sweet-Cushman: The late Elsie Hillman, who was a legendary presence in Republican politics, established it almost 20 years ago. She really had her heart set on increasing women’s presence in the public domain and politics. She was the driving force behind the founding of the center and up until her death a couple of years ago, she was still active in pushing our programs and inspiring us on a regular basis.

NHM: What is the goal of PCWP? 

Sweet-Cushman: We’re interested in increasing women’s representation in public leadership through outreach, education and increasing the number of women running for office.

NHM: Is it focused on women running for office locally, regionally or nationally?

Sweet-Cushman: We are primarily focused on maintaining data and encouraging women all across the Commonwealth. We’re interested in what is going on nationally too, but primarily, we’re looking at Pennsylvania. We’re modeled after the national organization at Rutgers (Center for American Women and Politics).

NHM: Women have been traditionally underrepresented in politics in general—is that still the case nationwide and in Pennsylvania as well?

Sweet-Cushman: People don’t generally realize just how underrepresented women are in Pennsylvania politics; it’s much worse than it is nationally. By some measures, we are 49th out of 50th for number of women represented. One measure we use frequently is how many women are in our state legislature; that is a good one to use because it is a pipeline to higher office.

Where you see the biggest difference is in executive leadership. We have never had a woman governor, never had a woman senator, and now there are zero women in the congressional delegation. There is no pipeline in the lower levels of office feeding up to higher levels of office—even on school boards, which is often a domain that women do quite well in nationally. Almost half of school board members nationally are women; in Pennsylvania, it’s about 36 percent.

NHM: Why is this?

Sweet-Cushman: Well, everyone wants the silver bullet answer to that. One is a structural thing; we don’t have term limits and incumbency is very, very powerful. Men currently serving in all of these positions would like to keep their jobs, and there is no natural force to move out, which means women will always be challenging incumbents.

Second, we have very strong political parties, and they play a major role in recruitment, support and encouragement—it is very difficult for candidates to be successful without these elements. This is true on both the Republican and Democratic side; they are much less likely to bring women into the fold. Parties are predominantly run by men, and they’re recruiting other men into these positions.

NHM: Why is it critical that women participate in politics?

Sweet-Cushman: Most basically, it is a democratic equality argument, where more than 50 percent of the population is women, yet 85 percent of the people representing them are men. From a practical aspect, there are outcomes associated with women representatives. We know that women’s issues are more likely to be advocated by women—that is the most obvious thing, but we also know that where there are more women, there tends to be greater transparency in government, there tends to be greater collaboration, and there tends to be work across the aisle between the two parties, which is increasingly important. Women are more likely to have more people sponsoring their legislation than their male colleagues, and they are more likely to pass legislation.

NHM: How does PCWP work to accomplish its mission?

Sweet-Cushman: One of our signature programs is the Ready to Run program, which provides nonpartisan campaign training for women. We are training women to be effective volunteers at other campaigns, or planting seeds for others running in the future. We also work with already declared candidates who need to know how to run an effective campaign, so this is for any woman who might have a place in electoral politics.

Another program is called NEW Leadership Pennsylvania; it brings together college women from all over the Commonwealth and teaches them leadership skills, public policy and activism. It really focuses on introducing them to female role models and encourages them to engage in their communities. We also have community education events, and we are the only place in the state that is a repository for data about women in politics.

NHM: Back to the NEW program: Why is it important to reach out to young women?

Sweet-Cushman: The messages that young girls get at a very early age say that politics is a man’s arena—you don’t have to look as far as a poster of all of the presidents to see that. They are less likely to be engaged in politics and increasingly are less interested in participating in student government. There are few student body presidents who are women at colleges in this country. That 18-24 area is a period of enhanced socialization, where peers become really important and you start identifying how you will be as an adult, so it is an important time to correct some of those messages about women belonging in public leadership.

NHM: What is the main message, or the main thing you want people to know about PCWP?

Sweet-Cushman: For the general public, it’s very important that they know that we’re increasing women’s leadership across the political spectrum. We don’t have an ideological agenda at all. Ultimately, we want to get the word out that women are underrepresented, and that matters as to the type of policy outcomes that we have.

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