Gender disparity in politics slowly evolving

Jana Benscoter
York Dispatch
  • Voters have elected 39 women to serve in the House of Representatives and seven women to serve in the Senate.
  • York County voters in 2016 elected four women to serve in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

Nearly 20 percent of all Pennsylvania lawmakers are women. That number ticks up slightly nationwide, where 25 percent of the elected officials are women.

Elected official is still not a role many women visualize for themselves, those involved in Pennsylvania politics say; however, that can — and should — change.

"What it all boils down to is encouraging girls in grade school," said Terri A. Marquis, an adjunct professor of government and politics at Harrisburg Area Community College.

Rep. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York Township, agreed.

"I can remember being in fourth grade," said Phillips-Hill, who was born in 1965. "It was the bicentennial, and the boys in the class wrote reports on a president. And, the girls in the class wrote reports on a first lady. So, you kind of always viewed yourself as the first lady." 

Phillips-Hill considering run for state Senate

The 51-year-old lawmaker said she takes her position seriously. She said not only are her children watching her, but other young women are, too. Having served in the House since 2015, Phillips-Hill said there are good men who serve, but she noted, "I think the mindset is really changing." 

Marquis, of Mechanicsburg, said millennial women understand the history behind a woman's right to vote. 

"The age of our country, they understand the things that have happened for women, and what women have fought for up until now," Marquis said. "I think the real issue is that politics is still looked at as a male-dominated field."

State Rep. Kristin Phillips-Hill talks about her career and women in politics at her Jacobus office Thursday, July 6, 2017. She represents the 93rd House District in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Bill Kalina photo

York County voters in 2016 elected four women to serve in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. There are no York County women serving in the Pennsylvania Senate. However, former Cumberland County Republican Sen. Pat Vance, whose district covered part of York County, retired last year after 11 years in the Senate and 13 years in the House. 

Compared to Pennsylvania's other 66 counties, only the state's southeastern counties — Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia — have elected more female lawmakers than York County's registered voters have.

Campaign advice: Nasty, smear-campaign tactics is one reason why women are reserved about running, according to Leo Knepper, CEO of Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania. CAP is a Harrisburg-based nonprofit that cultivates candidates who match its conservative, libertarian viewpoints. 

"In conversations that we've had with candidates, the biggest concern that we've heard from women is a concern about nasty personal attacks in a campaign," the 37-year-old Knepper said. "The advice we give to candidates is pretty much the same regardless of gender: They all need to get out there, knock on doors, meet the voters and raise money." 

Phillips-Hill  — who laughed when she was tapped by the York County Republican delegation to run — said she took her experience as a Dallastown Area school board member to the state level. "Most women" in her generation, she said, wouldn't have considered running. 

By us, for us: Knepper, of Pine Grove, Schuylkill County, said CAP in 2016 supported York Republican Rep. Dawn Keefer. She is among dozens of other female candidates whom the political organization has either vetted or supported in state and local elections. 

Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania Director Leo Knepper said his organization supports women candidates. Submitted/photo

"I can't imagine a reason why we wouldn't see a woman run for and become governor of the commonwealth," Knepper said. 

First-time candidate Deborah Kalina, who won her May 2017 primary election, is vying for a seat on Southern York County school board. 

Kalina, 54, is president of the York County Democratic Federation of Women. She said women should be engaged in politics.

"I think the conversation is so divisive," the Codorus Township resident said. "We all have to understand what it's like to govern. It's by and for us."

Kalina participated in a six-month program called Emerge Pennsylvania, meant to support and train female Democrats who might be interested in running for office.

Deborah Kalina announces bid for Southern York school board

Kalina said not only did she learn organizational skills as an Emerge Pennsylvania graduate, but she also learned how to collect petition signatures for the ballot, craft a fundraising plan, write media messaging and develop a campaign strategy. 

Deborah Kalina assembles lawn signs at her Codorus Township home prior to the at the 2017 primary election. submitted

Work-life balance: Another neophyte, York Democratic Rep. Carol Hill-Evans, said the biggest surprise working in politics is how busy everybody is and how challenging it is to make time for politics and family. In fact, Hill-Evans said, she often is surrounded by family, whether in Harrisburg or York. 

But that shouldn't stop anyone from running, the 67-year-old York City resident said, especially women. 

"Women are not running because there's still this sense that they're not equipped to run," Hill-Evans said. "That they're not at the same level as the good ol' boys." 

York City Mayor Kim Bracey, left, representative Carol Hill-Evans and Deborah Kalina at the 2017 St. Patrick's Day parade in York City. submitted

Hill-Evans said when legislators cast their vote, much of the decision is based upon gender perspective. She thinks women aren't as skewed when they vote. 

"We're looking at legislation from an angle of compassion and one from femininity," she said. "To me, it's more all-encompassing. It doesn't draw a line of 'this is a male issue' and 'this is a female issue.' It's more of a human issue."

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Kalina shared the same sentiment. She thinks when women govern there is a greater chance to push for principles of equality and fairness, as well as hold others accountable on issues such as the family, education, health care and the environment. 

"Women tend to value cooperation more, and they try to find common ground," Kalina said. "I think we would benefit more to meet there, to find that."