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Mary Sue Terry, seen here on June 6 at her home in Critz, Va., held the office of attorney general of Virginia from 1986 to 1993. She's the only woman to hold statewide office in Virginia. (Ryan Stone/For The Washington Post)
June 14, 2013

The statewide slate for Virginia’s November elections includes lawyers, a doctor, a businessman and a minister. But the six Republican and Democratic candidates do have one thing in common: They’re all men.

Neither major party nominated a woman for governor, lieutenant governor or attorney general this year. In fact, former attorney general Mary Sue Terry (D) is the only woman to have won statewide office in Virginia.

At the time, she assumed it wouldn’t be long before another woman would follow in her footsteps, Terry said.

“I certainly figured it would be before 20 years,” said Terry, who ran unsuccessfully for governor against George Allen in 1993. She was elected attorney general in 1985 and won reelection in 1989.

The absence of a woman on the ticket creates a unique challenge for both parties as they court the female vote. Women have composed more than 50 percent of the electorate in recent statewide elections, according to exit polls, and their votes could determine who wins.

Post coverage of the race for Virginia governor.

So the gubernatorial candidates — businessman Terry McAuliffe (D) and Ken Cuccinelli II (R), the state attorney general — are now catering to women with soft-focus TV ads featuring their wives and upbeat tones. Democrats also are reminding women of Republican efforts to restrict access to birth control and abortion, including a 2012 General Assembly bill that would have required a vaginal ultrasound before an abortion.

Virginia is one of only seven states with no women in statewide elective office. Nationwide, 73 women hold statewide offices, occupying 23 percent of the available posts, according to the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University. And 20 women are U.S. senators.

Republicans haven’t nominated a female candidate for a statewide job since lieutenant governor hopeful Edwina Dalton in 1989. The party has since picked 26 consecutive men as its standard-bearer for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and U.S. Senate. One Republican woman, Judith Jagdmann, served as attorney general for a year, but she was appointed, not elected, in 2005.

Democrats nominated women for lieutenant governor in 2005 and 2009. Both lost, and 19 of the past 21 statewide Democratic nominees have been men. (The Independent Green Party nominated Glenda Gail Parker for U.S. Senate in 2006 and 2008; she got about 1 percent of the vote both times.)

There is no single explanation for the lack of women in Virginia’s top jobs, according to several women active in the state’s politics. Some cited bias and prejudice, others noted the difficulty of balancing serving in office with motherhood. Then there’s the constant travel and loss of income associated with being on the campaign trail. Most of all, they said, there just aren’t enough women running.

“Women have a majority of the population in this state and have a majority of the wealth” because they live longer, Terry said. “If we’ve got a gender-equity problem in terms of who gets elected, I don’t think we can blame that on men.”

A supply problem

Two women who took the campaign plunge this year say the problem goes beyond a dearth of women willing to run for office.

“I think, on the Republican side, there’s a bias downstate against women,” said former state delegate and senator Jeannemarie Devolites Davis of Fairfax, one of two women who failed to clinch the GOP lieutenant governor nomination last month. “We have some members of our party . . . they actually have said to me, ‘Women shouldn’t be running for office. Women should be home raising their children.’ ”

In the seven-candidate Republican field, Davis campaigned on her ability to broaden the party’s appeal to minorities and moderates, while Stafford County Board of Supervisors Chairman Susan B. Stimpson positioned herself as the only conservative woman in the contest.

“The grass roots is ready for a woman leader,” Stimpson said. “It’s the old-guard political class of power brokers who want to keep an all-male-dominated government.”

Stimpson, 42, said she was frequently asked her age on the campaign trail.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard a male candidate asked that question,” she said, adding that she was often told she was “pretty, but not up to the task.”

Julie Copeland, the executive director of the Democratic groups Emerge Virginia and the Farm Team, said that to reduce barriers for female candidates more of them have to be produced.

“It’s a chicken-or-the-egg problem,” said Copeland, whose groups train and support Democratic women to be candidates. “You’ve got to get them to run and then to win.”

Training is especially important, said Sandy Liddy Bourne of the Jennifer Byler Institute, which prepares Republican women to be candidates. She said some earlier generations of female leaders “weren’t so good at helping others along. You see more mentoring now than we ever saw before.

“I think at the statewide level there is still a bit of the old glass ceiling left for both parties,” Bourne said.

Jennifer Lawless, the director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University, said the dearth of female candidates is apparent nationwide.

“Study after study shows voters are willing to elect women,” Lawless said. “The problem is they’re not running in the first place. . . . It’s no longer a demand problem, it’s a supply problem.”

Families and fundraising

Both parties recognize that the best way to get women into higher office is to elect more of them into lower offices — from mayoralties and county boards to the General Assembly — creating a more robust feeder system for statewide races.

Virginia has no women in its 13-member congressional delegation. There are 25 women serving in the General Assembly out of 140 total members. That puts the commonwealth 38th in the nation in female representation in the legislature, according to CAWP data.

In neighboring Maryland, 30 percent of General Assembly members are women — the ninth-highest number in the country. Maryland also boasts U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D), the longest-serving woman in congressional history.

Redistricting could help explain why there aren’t more women in the General Assembly. Stephen Farnsworth, a professor at the University of Mary Washington, noted that gerrymandered district maps mean “incumbent officeholders in some cases stay in office for decades,” leaving few open seats to target.

The cost of modern campaigns can also be daunting. Davis said she believed some women “are a little intimidated by the fundraising” required to run statewide.

Terry agreed, observing that some women she knew were not “comfortable” interacting with potential big donors because they were less accustomed to mixing socially with business leaders than men were.

And then there are family pressures. Jill Holtzman Vogel, the lone Republican woman in the state Senate, said women in politics who have children or plan to have them face tough choices. Vogel, who has four children younger than 10, said she was the first woman in Virginia history to have a baby while serving in the General Assembly.

“It would be remarkable in just about any other professional category to feel unusual because you’re having a baby,” Vogel said.

Although she is able to commute to Richmond daily from her Fauquier County home when the Senate is in session, Vogel is constantly worried that she will miss some of her kids’ activities.

Virginia has a part-time legislature, which Vogel supports. But she said women might be more likely to run in states with full-time legislatures, because in part-time states “it’s not a job where you can support a family” without income from a spouse or a second job.

Copeland countered that a part-time legislature makes the job more attractive. “Part of the pitch for me is that [the General Assembly session is] not that long — 60 days at most — and you’ve got weekends at home,” she said.

Some Republicans view Vogel as a potential statewide candidate. Though she’s “flattered,” her priorities are elsewhere for now.

“I think it would be a very difficult thing for me to do given the fact that I have a family,” Vogel said. “ . . . I’m not prepared to get on a bus and drag my children all over the state for a year.”

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