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  Friday, November 10, 2006
Slowly, women ascend in office

With the Democrats seizing control of Congress in Tuesday's election, many Republicans are concerned that U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is poised to become the speaker of the House of Representatives in January.

That the concern is about her politics, and not her gender, is a welcome sign of how much things have changed in recent decades, albeit slowly.

As the first female speaker of the House, Pelosi will be as close to the U.S. presidency as any woman ever has. The speaker is second in the line of presidential succession, behind the vice president.

It's been more than two decades since Geraldine Ferraro was the first and only woman to run on a presidential ticket, when she was the Democratic nominee for vice president.

The growing acceptance of women as elected leaders is hard to deny when U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are both seen as top choices for their party's 2008 presidential nomination. But Pelosi, Clinton and Rice continue to be the exception, rather than the rule.

Actually, the U.S. lags other nations, such as Chile, German, Liberia and Jamaica, which have all sworn in women as heads of their federal governments, in the past year or so.

In New York, the percentage of women in local government office is still short of their proportion in the overall population, according to a recent study from the Susan B. Anthony Center for Women's Leadership at the University of Rochester. The survey focused on representation in county legislatures and city councils in the state's five largest cities. The small number of women serving in elected office is virtually unchanged from the last report in 2002, though Dutchess County fared better than others.

Ten of the 25 county legislators in Dutchess are women, the highest percentage in the state, while only seven out of 33 in Ulster are women. The average for counties outside of New York City is 17 percent. In the mid-Hudson Valley, the female legislators are just about equally split between Republicans and Democrats, so this problem is not exclusive to one party.

There are resources available to help women already in office, or interested in running. The Susan B. Anthony Center is planning a policy summit for women officeholders next spring. The White House Project, a New York-based, nonpartisan, nonprofit group, also works to advance women into elected leadership positions.

Nora Bredes, director of the Anthony center, said if women can reach a "critical mass" in office, she believes they can help change politics that are too often focused on personal ambition, instead of serving the public good.

But it's up to local political party committees to do a better job recruiting female and, for that matter, minority candidates. Doing so will not only result in a government that better reflects the community it hopes to represent. It's necessary if these parties hope to remain relevant in an increasingly diverse region, state and country.

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On the Web

  • The Susan B. Anthony Center for Women's Leadership: www.roch

  • The White House Project: www.thewhite

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