Women and politics

Responsibility to family, lack of encouragement keeps many women from running for office

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When Pat Holderness became Routt County's first female county commissioner, there were plenty of skeptics.

A woman who had run unsuccessfully for commissioner told Holderness a woman could never be a county commissioner because all the deals were done in the restroom.

A former commissioner said the job was too hard for a woman.

And after she was elected, former County Commissioner J.A. "Doc" Utterback introduced her in public by noting that when the Greeks let women into their government, it was the end of their civilization.

"The only way to handle it was to laugh," said Holderness, a Hayden sheep and cattle rancher who served as a commissioner from 1982 to 1984.

Holderness decided to run shortly after her marriage of 28 years ended. At the time she felt powerless. She said one of the reasons she ran for office was because the county commissioner position paid better than her job at Northwest Colorado Mental Health.

The wife of her divorce attorney convinced her to run and helped finance the campaign.

"I kind of like the idea of being the first woman county commissioner, especially after a divorce," Holderness said. "It was probably the best thing that ever happened."

Holderness broke the barrier for elected women officials in Northwest Colorado. But there hasn't exactly been a flood of women following her.

After Holderness, it took a decade before another woman was elected commissioner. Nancy Stahoviak was elected in 1992. Moffat County Commissioner Marianna Raftopoulos is the first woman elected commissioner in Moffat County.

Stahoviak has spent 20 years in politics as Oak Creek mayor, town treasurer and finally commissioner. Stahoviak said women and men have different approaches to political office that should be appreciated and encouraged. She believes every county should have at least one female commissioner.

For example, women have a different perspective and a greater interest in health and human services than most men, she said.

"The difference between men and women is women tend to be more nurturing," Stahoviak said. "We have to think about taking care of others."

The gender gap

Not until governments have a more equal ratio will women-related issues receive the attention they deserve, said Nancy Miller, chairwoman of the Colorado Women's Leadership Coalition. Education, child care, health care and elderly care, the issues that are important to women, are not being addressed at the level they should, Miller said.

"I think women vote on issues that impact them and those issues are brought to the table by women," she said. "If there aren't enough women in positions in the political arena, who is going to pick the issues up and fight for them?"

Across the nation, numbers show the ratio of men to women in elected positions is disproportionate at every level of government -- local, state and federal. The higher the office, the greater the disparity.

Women hold just 14 percent of the 100 seats in the U.S. Senate and 13.6 percent of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives.

Colorado's General Assembly is second among legislatures nationwide in terms of the percentage of women representatives and senators. Women hold nine of the 35 seats in the state Senate and 24 of the 65 seats in the state House.

Colorado was the first state to elect women to its state legislature. Three Republican women were elected to the House in 1895.

In local governments in 2001, 203 of the 978 U.S. cities with more than 30,000 residents had female mayors. A study done in 1992 showed that there were 493,830 elected officials in local governments, slightly more than 100,000 of them women.

"I still think there is a very traditional conservative viewpoint that probably women shouldn't be in government," Holderness said.

But that's a mistake, she added. "Women make very good politicians. We don't have the egos and are more willing to listen."

Getting involved

Politics affects the air women breathe, the water they drink and what they buy at the grocery store, said Cathrine Lykken, a founding member of the Steamboat chapter of the League of Women Voters.

"Women have a large interest in everything," Lykken said. "They are interested in children's law, water, interested in the environment, international relations and interested in a fiscally responsible government."

Women also are more likely to vote than men in Moffat and Routt counties.

The Yampa Valley Partners Community Indicators Project show that 71 percent of voting-age women in Moffat County and 79 percent of women in Routt County are registered to vote and classified as active. For men, the number is 68 percent in Moffat County and 71 percent in Routt County.

When looking at the number of registered voters, more men are registered to vote than women. Of the 19,960 people in Routt County, 14,651 are registered to vote. Men make up 52 percent of that number and women 49 percent.

The number of active voters in Routt County is 9,126 and women make up 49 percent of them.

"Sometimes I think we don't remember that we haven't had the right to vote for 100 years," Lykken said. "We forget that it hasn't been that long since we didn't have the right to vote. I just don't think it is something we should take for granted."

Barbara DeVries, also a founding member in Steamboat's League of Women Voters, remembers the stories her mother told about fighting for the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote in 1920. DeVries said the League of Women Voters was formed as an organization to educate women on election issues.

"In those days, they couldn't see that a woman had enough knowledge to vote intelligently," she said.

DeVries and Lykken said they sense voters feel overwhelmed about the complexity of issues or feel that their vote does not count.

Often, women feel the issues they are concerned about aren't the ones being discussed, Miller said.

"Women do care a lot about family, health and about parenting issues," Miller said. "What we talk about is a little different then what political agendas are discussing."

The family impact

"A women's place is in the House ... And the Senate."

Those words are written across a bright yellow T-shirt Lykken received at a 1977 League of Women Voters' gathering.

Getting more and more women into political office is important, Lykken said. Holderness, Stahoviak, Miller and DeVries agreed.

The overwhelming reason more women do not run, especially for higher offices, is the impact it has on their families, Miller said. The time when women are busy raising children is often the time they are most eligible for public office, she said.

Stahoviak said the higher the office the more time away from family.

"The state level creates challenges for women especially in the rural area as opposed to men being in Denver," Stahoviak said. "For young women with families, it is harder for you to leave the home setting."

Stahoviak waited until her son graduated from high school before running for county commissioner.

Jean Stetson, who ran for Moffat County commissioner last year and won the primary before losing the general election, thought about her high school and middle school age boys before deciding to run.

"I was concerned about the time it might take away from my family," Stetson said.

Both Stetson and Stahoviak stress the importance of having a husband who is supportive.

Miller said governments need to figure out how to make elected office more mom-friendly.

Mentors and money

Although family might be the most daunting obstacle keeping women out of public office, the lack of female mentors and financing also are critical.

Often, Miller said, women have not had the same level of mentoring and encouragement men receive when it comes to running for political office. Part of what her organization does is advocate the appointment of women to state boards and commissions.

Stetson said she was prompted to run by those who had served on committees with her.

Miller said some women are prevented from going into politics because of perceptions that politics requires an underhanded approach.

"I have talked to some of the women who have gone into politics," Miller said. "They are very disillusioned about what they have to go through. It is a matter of, if you want this thing to get done, what are you willing to do?"

Getting into politics also means knowing the rules and when the rules are unspoken it helps to have a mentor, Miller said.

"If women get into politics because they want to make a difference and then find that the atmosphere is different than what they expected, they take it hard," she said.

Changing tactics

Financing is key to winning an election and Miller said women don't have the political machinery in place for raising the funds they need.

"If we want women to participate fully in the political arena, things have to change," Miller said. "I don't think it is all about money. We have to start looking at how we can run our campaigns and about what is important."

Stahoviak said she frequently has been the only woman in a meeting room.

"The way I was raised, I just don't see that as a detriment," Stahoviak said. "It doesn't bother me to walk into a room full of men. And, I do see more and more women."

But she would like to see more women take the step from volunteering to serving as an elected official.

"Part of it is people say 'I can never do that. You deal with so much stuff,'" she said. "But if someone cares, you can do this."

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