Women describe hardships, victory in politics

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Photo by Farooq Baloch

Story by Renae Blum, NewsNetNebraska

2010 could be a landmark year for women in politics. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, a record-shattering number of women filed to run for the U.S. House and Senate. New Mexico and Oklahoma will elect their first female governors. No woman of color has served as governor in the United States, but Nikki Haley of South Carolina and New Mexico’s Susana Martinez – the first Latina to run for governor – could change all that.

It could be a year of firsts for Nebraska, too. No woman has ever been elected to represent the 1st District in Congress, a fact Ivy Harper is eager to change. If elected in the 3rd District, Rebekah Davis would be the first woman to fill the position since Virginia Smith left office in 1991, after representing the western two-thirds of Nebraska for 16 years.

Harper and Davis, along with two currently serving female state senators, spoke recently about their experiences as women politicians in Nebraska and what changes they want to see.

There was nothing unusual about the old men. Sen. Amanda McGill of Lincoln was used to political lobbyists knocking at her door. The men weren’t an official bunch, just a group of farmers trying to promote wind energy.

McGill, 30, and three female aides stood talking in the hallway, McGill’s office door closed behind them. The farmers approached and introduced themselves and their cause.

Then one handed his printed material to McGill. “Just make sure you pass it along to him,” he said.

The implied assumption – that the senator was male – caught her off guard. “I didn’t want to be rude,” McGill said.

She smiled, took the materials and said she would.

Retelling the story, McGill grinned widely, calling it a harmless, innocent mistake. “I was embarrassed for him,” she said.

According to several current or aspiring female Nebraska politicians – Davis, McGill, Harper and Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln  – the road awaiting a woman seeking elected office in Nebraska may be full of bumps.

A lack of recruitment, a male-dominated landscape, the desire to raise young children and bias against women are all possible impediments to a woman gaining office in Nebraska, their comments suggest.

Women make up 20 percent of the Legislature, or 10 out of 49 seats. Nebraska’s governor, attorney general, secretary of state, state treasurer, state auditor and all five members of Congress are male. The mayor of Grand Island is female, while the mayors of Nebraska’s four other largest cities are male. One woman serves on the Nebraska Supreme Court.

“If I pull this off, it would be a miracle,” said Harper, the Democrat running to represent the 1st District. She revealed some of her frustrations in a telephone interview.

“How can they say I’m not a winnable candidate? It’s absolutely ridiculous,” she said, referring to a Feb. 1 piece in the Lincoln Journal Star declaring “game over” in Harper’s race because of Republican incumbent Jeff Fortenberry’s massive campaign budget. Harper is running on a shoestring budget.

“I’m formidable. They don’t want me to be formidable,” she said. “It’s stunning to me that I would be written off.”

“Discrimination” is too strong a word, she said. “Male-dominated” is the better way to describe Nebraska’s political scene, Harper said.

She compared the interaction of some of Nebraska’s top politicians at official events to that of a country club.

“In Nebraska, I do think it’s a bit of a boy’s club,” Harper said.

Campbell, who began her political career in 1986, disputed Harper’s initial claims of gender-based discrimination. Because of Nebraska’s farming history, in which men and women regularly team up to run businesses, citizens care far more about character than they do a candidate’s gender, Campbell said.

She’s even seen improvement: in 1986, when Campbell first ran for Lancaster County commissioner, she saw men who were vocal in their distaste for female candidates. That isn’t something she sees anymore.

“Maybe at this point, it may be my personality,” Campbell said. “I don’t perceive it as a barrier, therefore I don’t allow it to become a barrier for myself.”

One thing Harper, Campbell, Davis and McGill agree on is the sheer lack of numbers. To them, it’s clear: Nebraska needs more women in leadership positions.

More aggressive recruitment is what’s needed, said McGill, who at 30 is the youngest senator in the Unicameral. She ran for office after several close friends sat her down to talk with her. The experience was “empowering,” she said.

Davis, the 28-year-old Democrat running for the House  in District 3, advocates a more hands-off approach.

“You don’t have to ask permission,” said Davis, a hospital chaplain from Alliance, Neb.. “I ran based purely off my own convictions. I wouldn’t wait to be asked.”

Instead, Davis argued, women should run because of what they know they have to offer.

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In some ways, being a woman is actually an advantage, Harper said. When she goes door-to-door, people frequently invite her in, tell her their stories. Some cry.

“I have a hard time believing that if Jeff Fortenberry knocked on their door, that they’d start talking about student loan debt or something,” Harper said.

Women are also less likely to “antler-bash,” she said.

“What women bring to the table is, ‘Let’s stop fighting and solve some problems,’” Harper said.

On Nov. 2, Harper and Davis were just two of the women on the ballot waiting to hear if they would get the chance to do just that.

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