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The way is still not easy for women candidates

By Judy Wertheimer 

Michele Knoll, running for state House in the 44th District, tells about an event she attended where she was accosted by a man she’d just met. “He snagged me around my waist and pulled me to him, hip to shoulder,” and wouldn’t let go. As a 61-year-old married woman with grown kids, she says, it’s surprising to discover “there doesn’t seem to be an expiration date” on that kind of behavior.

Lindsey Williams, running for state Senate in the 38th, good-naturedly lists all the comments she’s gotten in one recent week on the campaign trail. Her hair, her make-up, her weight (she looks like she’s lost some!), her dress, even how she wears her purse — it’s all fair game.

Emily Skopov, running in the 28th against Speaker of the House Mike Turzai, tells a story of a handful of hours spent in Harrisburg that absolutely snapped my head around when I heard it, but she doesn’t want me to repeat it here, for fear of repercussions. She plans to tell the story herself, later, but for now, she says, decidedly understating, “As a candidate, I was surprised by the lack of respect I was treated with by several current legislators.”

These encounters are the tip of the iceberg. Politics can be a brutally sexist arena in which women face considerable systemic and structural barriers from the moment they decide to run for office. The gendered way they’re seen and not seen makes countless things harder for women.

Enter Women for The Future (WTF) Pittsburgh, the brainchild of a group of women with political experience who are committed to getting more women elected in Western Pennsylvania and creating a pipeline of women for higher office. Co-founded by former city council candidate Ashleigh Deemer, Wilkinsburg Mayor Marita Garrett, former Pittsburgh City Council member Natalia Rudiak and Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner, the group has a three-pronged strategy: Endorsing progressive candidates whom they’ve thoroughly vetted, mentoring these same women and, not least, raising money to help with their campaigns. Explains Ms. Rudiak, “Women candidates find it harder to raise money because women don’t have access to the networks men do. And the pay gap means women have less money.”

Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee, two first-time candidates who unseated incumbents in the May primary in their runs for the state House, both reaped the benefits that accrued with WTF Pittsburgh’s endorsement, not least $6,500 toward each of their campaigns.

That kind of money can be game-changing in races at this level. And while WTF Pittsburgh aims to raise as much money as it can from whomever wants to give, in particular the group seeks to bring more women to the fundraising fold. Women typically will volunteer to help a candidate with phone calls or door-knocking, but when it comes to donations, women prioritize nonprofits over political campaigns. That means when it comes to campaign funding, women let men do the heavy lifting. So guess who’s at the table after all the votes are counted? No surprise:

Of the 28 people who represent at least some fragment of Allegheny County in Pennsylvania’s General Assembly, one is a woman. Of the 18 members of Pennsylvania’s delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, none are women, and Pennsylvania has never elected a woman senator or governor. A gender parity index compiled by ranks Pennsylvania 49th ahead of only Mississippi.

What difference does it make? It makes all the difference. Legislatures are constantly making critical decisions about what to legislate and fund, and studies have shown repeatedly that women are more likely to prioritize bills aimed at improving the lives of women, families and children. Studies also have shown that the more women there are at the table, the more likely those bills are to succeed.

WTF Pittsburgh has endorsed all the aforementioned candidates, as well as Betsy Monroe in state House District 30. There likely will be another round of endorsements before the general election. And while the group is nonpartisan by definition, in practice so far all endorsed candidates are democrats. The operative word is “progressive.”

“You need to realize,” explains Ms. Rudiak, “that you can give $50 to your favorite breast cancer charity, and you can also give $50 to a candidate who can earmark $50 million for breast cancer research.” She goes on to talk about how great it was when a woman approached her after a recent WTF Pittsburgh event and handed her a crumpled $5 bill.

That’s the only way we’ll claim our own seats at the table, if each of us shows up, and does what we can. In this political moment, it’s one real thing we can do — we can show up for our sisters who are showing up for us.

Correction, posted Aug. 22, 2018: Betsy Monroe is running for state representative in the 30th Legislative District. A previous version of this story had an incorrect district number.

Judy Wertheimer is a writer from Squirrel Hill ([email protected]).

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