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House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif..

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

For women in Congress, it's lonely at the top

  • Article by: Melinda Henneberger
  • Washington Post
  • June 13, 2012 - 1:26 PM

On Nancy Pelosi's 25th anniversary in Congress, I met with the authors of a new book that explains why so few female colleagues have joined her in all that time. Their findings are nothing to celebrate.

There are many reasons why more women don't run, including that they're still less likely to come forward unless asked - and are less likely to be asked. They're more put off by the possible nastiness and certain loss of privacy.

What I did not know, though, is that incumbency doesn't protect women in quite the same way it does men, according to "Women & Congressional Elections: A Century of Change," by Barbara Palmer of Baldwin-Wallace College and Dennis Simon of Southern Methodist University.

Even after they're elected to Congress, in other words, women continue to have more competition in both primary and general elections than their male counterparts do, and they have to fight harder and raise more money to stay in office.

They're perceived as more vulnerable, regardless of their margin of victory, say the authors, who spent 14 years researching about 40,000 candidates.

Many of the challengers to these congresswomen are female, too, in districts that have come to be considered "women-friendly" - so that even if another woman wins, it's a wash rather than a net gain in terms of female representation.

"You're a lightning rod" as a woman in office, Simon told me. And often, Palmer said, a reelection campaign turns into "a free-for-all."

There's more than a little something to that perception of certain districts as relative comfort zones for female candidates, though. In a chapter called "Demographics Is Destiny," Palmer and Simon explain that it's not too difficult to predict where women are most likely do well: in diverse, upscale urban areas with the most highly educated voters.

I correctly guessed the two most female-friendly districts in the country, which are Carolyn Maloney's, the old silk stocking district on the Upper East Side of Manhattan - what, no cookie? - followed by Pelosi's in San Francisco.

But I would not have supposed that every one of the top 20 is currently held by a Democrat. And most of these districts - a whopping 75 percent - are in just two states, California and New York.

Mind you, only eight of these 20 progressive havens are represented by women, which the glass-half-full researchers say might best be viewed as "areas of opportunity" when those seats do come open. (Seven of the 12 men who represent them are near retirement age, the authors note.)

Conversely, women have the hardest time getting elected in rural or blue-collar areas, which helps explain why even some blue states, such as New Jersey and Massachusetts, elect so few of them.

The number of Republican women in Congress did grow in 2010, from 17 to 24, but is still far paltrier than across the aisle, where there are 49 Democratic women.

And of the 20 districts that are least likely to elect a woman, 19 are Republican, and all are in the South. The only Democrat on the list, Mike Ross, who represents the 4th Congressional District in Arkansas, is not running again.

Texas has the most of these male bastions, with four; there's also rough terrain for women in Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, Louisiana, Georgia, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi and Virginia.

The safest congressional district of all for men? There's a tie between Georgia's 9th and Alabama's 4th, where demographics suggest women have a 2 percent chance of winning.

Amid so much documentation that female candidates are held to a higher standard by both voters and reporters, there is this at the book's end: With the country becoming more urban, more diverse, more educated (I'm not so sure about that one) and less blue-collar, big gains could be ahead.

But for Republican women in the South, where's the good news?

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