The House Democratic Leader from California is poised to assume the No. 2 spot behind Vice President Dick Cheney in the line of succession to the presidency. The very fact that Pelosi is about to become the first woman speaker in U.S. history is proof that women historically have lagged behind in roles of government leadership.
A recent study conducted by the University of Rochester indicated that though things are improving, women, overall, remain largely underrepresented as leaders in New York. With the exception of Dutchess and Westchester counties, the state garnered disappointing grades on a report card generated by the study.
"While women make up 52.7 percent of the New York state voting population, they hold just 17.4 percent of the seats in county legislatures outside of New York City and, an increase of only 0.8 percent from a figure of 16.6 percent in 2002, women still have not reached 'critical mass' in local governments," said Nora Bredes, director of the Anthony Center at the University of Rochester.
"Research in sociology and political science shows that when groups reach 35 percent representation, they support each others' beliefs and values and can affect change," she said.
Bredes and her colleagues looked at how women were represented in county legislatures and in leadership roles in five major cities (Albany, Buffalo, New York City, Rochester and Syracuse) from 2002 to 2006. For instance, the number of women county executives increased from one in 2002 (Kathleen Jimino - Rensselaer County) to three in 2006, Bredes said.
During that time, two more women were elected as presidents or presiding officers of their county legislatures, bringing the total to six. Four out of the five cities in the survey have women serving as president or speaker of their city councils, she said.
Rensselaer County Executive Jimino speaks often to area high school students to encourage them to consider careers in local government. She doesn't find it surprising to learn that women are still underrepresented in local government in a number of counties in the state.
"Women perhaps haven't really considered careers in elected office until the last 10 or 15 years," she said.
Women running for office address the same issues men do, Jimino said.
"They need to reflect their constituents' needs and shape policy based on those needs," she said.
Public office allows Jimino to connect people with services they need and gives her a great deal of satisfaction.
"You have the ability to makes someone's life better on a daily basis," Jimino said.
Rensselaer County District Attorney Patricia DeAngelis succeeded Kenneth Bruno in 1992 and became the fifth woman in New York state history to become district attorney.
"At 34, I believe I was the youngest female district attorney in the state at the time," she said.
There are currently 12 women statewide holding the office of district attorney. And female representation in the state's judiciary system is even more impressive, DeAngelis said.
Her challenges on the job aren't anything more or less than a male counterpart would face.
"You earn your respect. I've never felt being a woman meant having to fight harder," she said.
DeAngelis found her niche in the DA's office, especially with regard to cases of child abuse.
In the last couple of decades, officials have started looking differently at domestic violence due, in part, to the influence women have had on the legal process.
For example, Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro created the state's first domestic violence unit prior to her tenure as DA, DeAngelis said.
Overall, women have made slow and uneven progress in leadership positions in New York state, said Judith Saidel, director of the state University at Albany's Center for Women in Government and Civil Society.
"Every year in every area there has not always been progress made," she said.
Research conducted by CWIG from 1998 to 2005, based on what Saidel called a representative ratio, found that the number of women holding policy leadership roles in all three levels of government actually decreased during that time. The state ranked 33rd out of 50 in 1998 and 25th in 2005.
"I don't think the Empire State likes to think of itself as the Median State, but based on our findings, that's where it is," Saidel said.
Voters may be closer than ever to putting the first woman in office as president of the United States, but female representation in state and local governments is not necessarily an indication of that, she said.
"There are a number of other political dynamics at work during a presidential election, namely the availability of the right candidate at the right time and someone with broad appeal," Saidel said.
If Pelosi succeeds in her role as speaker of the House she will have advanced the cause for women in seats of power on a national level, she said.