For years, even as women made steady advances into the US Senate and House, the office of governor has remained far more elusive, with most voters continuing to prefer men as their state's chief executive.
But this year, the gubernatorial glass ceiling may be about to crack open. With women leading the field in two states with gubernatorial primaries Tuesday, and nearly a dozen credible female candidates in other states, this fall's elections could produce a record number of women governors.
In part, the sudden surge is the direct result of opportunity. Of the 36 governorships up this year, 20 are open seats meaning no incumbent is running which makes them easier targets for newcomers.
Women have also made recent gains in many of the offices that act as steppingstones to governorships. This year's candidates include several state attorneys general and state treasurers, who are noticeably portraying themselves as tough on crime and capable budget stewards, areas where women have traditionally been seen as weaker.
Interestingly, analysts also suggest that this year, women candidates for governor may not suffer from perceptions that they simply aren't "executive" material since the image of the corporate chief executive has been so tarnished. The unfolding scandals in business, the Catholic Church, and the FBI and the critical role played by women as whistle-blowers could all work to give female candidates an advantage: Voters may seek leaders who will crack down on errant CEOs and those who abuse power, rather than appearing to be one of them.
"People view women as more moral and ethical," says Karen O'Connor, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University in Washington. "We really could see a Year of the Woman on the state level."
The original Year of the Woman, of course, was 1992, when the number of women in Congress jumped from 28 to 42. That's unlikely to happen this year, however, largely because the redistricting process the redrawing of congressional lines to conform with new census data created just 42 open House seats this year, compared with 93 in 1992. Likewise, there are only four open Senate seats. But analysts say the lack of opportunity at the congressional level this year may have persuaded more women to seek governorships.
While the cost of running statewide has often made it difficult for women to mount gubernatorial campaigns in the past, several groups dedicated to advancing women in politics such as the Democratic fundraising group Emily's List, its GOP counterpart the Wish List, and the nonpartisan White House Project have devoted particular attention to governorships lately, after initially focusing on Congress. This reflects a growing recognition that governors' seats can lead to higher positions.
"Four of the past five presidents were governors," says Marie Wilson, president of the White House Project. "This is one of the ways you position yourself for the cabinet or higher office."
Women now hold a record five governorships. Of the three whose seats are up this fall, none is seeking reelection (Jane Swift (R) of Massachusetts is leaving, Jeanne Shaheen (D) of New Hampshire is running for Senate, and Jane Dee Hull (D) of Arizona has reached her term limit).
Nevertheless, this year's elections could see that number more than doubled. Women are currently frontrunners in states such as Maryland, Hawaii, and Arizona, and are credible candidates in Alaska, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin. They're also running ahead in two states with primaries tomorrow.
In Michigan, Attorney General Jennifer Granholm is favored to win the Democratic nomination, even though she's up against two Democratic heavyweights, former Gov. Jim Blanchard and Rep. David Bonior, the former No. 2 Democrat in the House. She's also polling ahead of Republican Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus.
In Kansas, Democratic Insurance Commissioner Kathleen Sebelius, who is unchallenged on her side, has taken a recent lead in polls as the crowded field of GOP contenders has attacked one another.
Of course, none of these women has a clear path to victory. A few, like Maryland's Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, have been slipping in the polls recently, as their opponents begin to attack them. Others, such as former US Attorney General Janet Reno in Florida, are favored to win the primary, but face tough general-election battles.
Analysts agree that one challenge for women candidates this year may be the nation's focus on national security and homeland defense, areas where women may not be seen as strong.
"Conventional wisdom would have it that women wouldn't fare nearly as well because we don't speak the language of war, so to speak," says Ms. O'Connor.
On the other hand, she adds, this may prove a greater hindrance to women running for Congress than for governor since Congress deals more directly with military and foreign-relations matters.
Ms. Sebelius, for one, has made public safety a focus of her campaign, tackling questions such as how to protect the state's agricultural industry from bioterrorist attacks.
"The notion that somehow women are not well-equipped or interested in safety issues is just erroneous," she says. Pointing out that McConnell Air Force base in Kansas just initiated a woman as their new commander for the first time, she adds, "Perhaps we're in an era when people are willing to put aside those old-fashioned stereotypes."