A Political Opportunity for Women

Geraldine Ferraro  --  with running mate Walter F. Mondale in 1984  --  remains the only woman to run for vice president on a major-party ticket, a fact that she finds disappointing.
Geraldine Ferraro -- with running mate Walter F. Mondale in 1984 -- remains the only woman to run for vice president on a major-party ticket, a fact that she finds disappointing. (By Jack Smith -- Associated Press)
By Anushka Asthana
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 7, 2006

Geraldine A. Ferraro made history in 1984 as the first woman to run for vice president on a major-party ticket. Twenty-two years later, she wishes she was no longer in a club of one.

"I thought it would have happened by now," Ferraro said with a sad note in her voice as she looked down at a room packed with more than 600 people, young and old, at the University of Virginia last month.

The glass ceiling in presidential politics will not be broken in her lifetime, she predicted to reporters before taking the stage. But she was there to persuade a new generation of women to continue the fight.

"We have to keep reminding them what it was like before, so they recognize that the only way they are going to make it better for the future -- for their future and their children's future -- is by becoming involved politically," she said.

The Democrat's appearance that night was part of a drive by U-Va.'s Center for Politics to inspire young women to get involved in politics. Its director, Larry J. Sabato, described Ferraro as a "trailblazer for the United States of America" and said she would be introduced by a "trailblazer in Virginia."

Mary Sue Terry, who in 1985 was elected Virginia's first female attorney general before losing the governor's race to now-Sen. George Allen (R) in 1993, said that there are many obstacles to women's advancement in politics but that she has hope. "It is not going to be easy, but it is not impossible," she said.

In fact, this year may prove to be a major breakthrough for women in Congress, according to experts at the university. Sabato's Crystal Ball, a Web page that provides analysis of House and Senate races around the country, is predicting that 2006 could be the best year for women in 14 years.

In a conservative scenario, according to the Crystal Ball, female candidates would gain nine seats in the House -- the largest rise since the Year of the Woman in 1992, when the number of women in Congress jumped from 32 to 54.

"There is going to be a net gain in the House for women," agreed Dennis Simon, a professor at Southern Methodist University and co-author of "Breaking the Political Glass Ceiling." But there is still a "gender gap in running for office," he said.

With co-author Barbara Palmer, of the Women & Politics Institute at American University, Simon looked at which jurisdictions tend to be most and least friendly to women. Topping the list of those most likely to vote for female candidates are New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles. At the other end are Gadsden, Ala., and Paducah and Bowling Green, Ky.

Districts that elect women, according to Simon, tend to be "upscale -- more degrees, more professionals, urban." Those less likely, he added, are "more rural, lower-income and more traditional."

Simon said female candidates are often seen as more liberal than they actually are -- as in the case of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). But her possible presidential candidacy, and the speculation that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice might be a presidential candidate in 2008 or later, has shifted perceptions about the plausibility of a female president.

Having Rice and former secretary of state Madeleine Albright in top national security jobs "made it normal to see women as leaders," said Marie Wilson, president and founder of the White House Project, which aims to advance female leadership and is training hundreds of women to run for office. "It we have three or four women in '08, it would have to be agenda," rather than sex, that separates them, she added.

Wilson said the United States has fallen through the rankings in women's political representation -- to 68th -- as other countries such as South Africa and Great Britain and Scandinavian nations climbed the list. Some countries used quotas to address the imbalance.

The recent U-Va. conference used persuasion. "New blood is needed," Ferraro told the audience. "If ever there was a time when the world and our nation needed new voices, new values, new approaches and sensitivities, this is it. Politics gives us the power to make a difference."

Women, she argued, would ensure that the concerns of half the population were listened to. In the same way that John McCain, as a former prisoner of war, pushed hard for legislation to ban torture, so women would shout loudest on behalf of day care, flexible work hours, prenatal health care, immunization, the aging population and more, she argued.

The challenge, she added, is to get enough women into the candidate pool. "The American electorate is accustomed to expect certain types of experience from candidates for national office," she said. "It doesn't hurt to be a governor of a large state, to be vice president or a senator of long experience."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company