Iowa legislators reflect on women's contributions to politics, set goals


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Iowa is notable for leading in certain areas of politics, including its “first in the nation” caucus status, but the state has fallen behind the nation in one aspect: electing females to higher offices in Iowa and Washington, D.C.

 “I wish I knew [why this hasn’t happened], because I know how well-qualified women are,” Rep. Mary Gaskill, D-Ottumwa, said. “Our neighbors in Missouri are able to do that as well as Nebraska and even North Dakota. The time is coming, we just have to be patient.”

Iowa did make some progress in this year’s election. The state saw an increase of one seat in the 100-seat House, bringing the number of women to a total of 25. Additionally, two women were voted to seats in the 50-seat Senate, adding to a total of 10.

But despite these small steps, there is a long way to go, some say. No female has yet been elected to the governor’s mansion. And Iowa — along with only Delaware, Mississippi, and Vermont — has never sent a woman to Congress.

“I do not know why we just can’t seem to get that accomplished … excellent candidates have run on both sides of the aisle,” said Johnson County Supervisor Sally Stutsman, who is now a newly elected Iowa House representative.

Former Rep. and Sen. Jean Lloyd-Jones, D-Iowa City, said the slight increase puts the Legislature “on track” to reach the target of a half-female representation in both houses. That 50 percent goal is one of many targets set in the “50-50 in 2020 Program” — 2020 is the 100-year anniversary of women’s suffrage.

Lloyd-Jones, who served her first term as a state representative beginning in 1979, recalled her days in a Legislature vastly outnumbered.

 “Women were so rare that on my first day someone said to me, ‘Whose clerk are you?’ ” said Lloyd-Jones, a co-head of the 50-50 in 2020 Program. “Now, women are not considered as such rare creatures as back in my day.”

The 50-50 goals are robust, and one current state senator said even with the addition of a couple of seats in each house this year, the goals are not realistic.

“At this time, we’re not catching as quickly as maybe we should if we’re only gaining maybe one or two seats a year,” Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Red Oak, said. “I don’t know if we’ll hit that 50-50 by 2020, but we’ll keep pursuing it.”

A University of Iowa political-science faculty member said one reason Iowa has not sent a woman to Congress is because of poor recruitment of female candidates by parties. But, she said, it is mainly due to the longevity of members in the Iowa Congressional caucus.

“There’s just not a lot of turnover,” said Associate Professor Tracy Osborn. “[Congressman Dave Loebsack] replaced someone who had been there for a while, and both the senators have been there forever, the governor has no term limit, and the longer they serve means fewer opportunities, which makes it very competitive when there is an open seat.”

Beyond the longevity of Iowa’s Congressional delegation, Osborn and current representatives cited some obstacles that remain for women thinking about pursuing political office.

“Running a statewide campaign is exhausting, and unless you are a woman who has no family to take care of, when you walk in the door at the end of the campaign day, it makes it very hard,” Sen. Sandy Greiner, R-Washington, said.

But interest might be growing. Osborn said there is a possibility for a “Hillary Rodham Clinton effect” when girls see more women run for office.

One current state representative agreed and said she has seen more interest from younger women in recent years.

“I noticed changed in woman’s attention the last couple of years,” Rep. Mary Gaskill, D-Ottumwa, said.  “When Hillary Clinton ran, she had a lot of support from the younger generation, and I think we’re realizing that is something we can do.”

An increase of just a few seats may seem like a small change, but the progress could one day lead to Iowa sending its first woman to Washington, D.C.

“I think it’s just a matter of time; when the right candidate is there, it will happen,” said Sen. Nancy Boettger, R-Harlan.

Despite the long road to a 50-50 split, U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said he thinks women have already made great strides in the Iowa House since his own time spent there from 1959-1975.

“In 1961, we made a big deal out of at least one woman being in the state House of Representatives in Iowa,” Grassley said in a statement emailed to The Daily Iowan. “All you’ve got to do is look at the state Legislature today to see that women have made a great contribution.”

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