Women shine in Tuesday's primaries, especially for the GOP

Good showings for female Republican candidate in Tuesday's primaries hold the promise of more women in elected office, reflecting society's faster pace toward gender equity.

In the dozen states that held primaries Tuesday, female candidates not only did well but many of the women ran on a GOP ticket – which may help turn around that party’s reputation as a male bastion.

These ballot victories for women need to be noted, as Congress is still only 14 percent female while only 6 of 50 state governors are women.

Equality in politics has been slow-paced for women compared with other parts of American society. This year, for example, the nation passed an important milestone: For the first time in history, women outnumber men in the workplace. And that trend may only continue as colleges now enroll more women than men.

Voters, of course, don’t always reward a female candidate for being a woman. Just ask Hillary Rodham Clinton, who lost the 2008 race to be a candidate for president. And in heavily Democratic Massachusetts, a January contest for the Senate seat once held by Ted Kennedy went to a state GOP lawmaker, Scott Brown, over Martha Coakley, the state’s attorney general.

While being female may often be an advantage in politics, more contests now also pit a woman against a woman. That will be the case this fall in California, where Barbara Boxer, the incumbent Democratic senator, will face a former Hewlett-Packard executive, Carly Fiorina, a Republican. At the least, such all-female contests can inspire more women to run for office.

Another potential boost for women may lie in this year’s anti-incumbent mood of voters. Male lawmakers, just by their sheer dominance, are more vulnerable, while female candidates are often perceived as outsiders.

One coming race to watch along those lines is in Iowa: Roxanne Conlin won Tuesday’s Democratic primary to run against five-term Republican Sen. Charles Grassley. Iowa has never elected a woman to the House or Senate.

And in the Democratic primary in Arkansas, incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln won a tough fight against a more liberal male opponent, perhaps in part by being a woman who stands up to Washington’s male-dominated establishment.

The “outsider” role in this year’s primaries has been played up big by Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor, whose famous stump line is now “mama grizzlies, they rise up.” Her endorsement of four female Republican candidates may have helped three of them win or proceed to a runoff. And by her association with the “tea party” movement, she has helped prevent that conservative group from being stamped as antiwoman.

Ms. Palin’s role as the first woman on a Republican presidential ticket launched her national reputation in 2008, but it came 24 years after the Democratic Party put Geraldine Ferraro, on its ticket. (Democrats also chose the first female speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.)

The GOP still has plenty of catching up to do in recruiting women candidates – even if many of those candidates play down their gender. (Palin herself refers to an “emerging, conservative, feminist identity” in the party.) These latest primary victories for women show that the party is gaining ground and perhaps that will help bring gender equity in US politics closer to reality.

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