Some months back, a strategic discussion among DFL activists about what unseating GOP U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack will require ended with a jarring question to Eighth District primary contender Tarryl Clark:

"What are you going to do about the fact that you are a woman?"

The questioner was in earnest, Clark says. The answer she related to me is the only riposte a self-respecting female candidate could utter: "I'm going to win!"

Touche', Tarryl. But the fact that such a question is still being posed with a straight face in 2012 tells me that the Minnesota's women's movement still has work to do.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of what future state historians will mark as a breakthrough year for women in politics. Six women were elected to the Minnesota House in 1972. (One of them -- DFL Rep. Phyllis Kahn -- still serves.) Only one woman sat in that 134-seat chamber in 1971.

Since 1972, the number of women in the Legislature has climbed to 66, or 33 percent -- a share that can be deemed satisfactory only if one overlooks the fact that women comprise 50.3 percent of the state's population.

The continuing deficit in female representation is not because voters don't like women candidates. On the contrary, said University of Minnesota political scientist Kathryn Pearson. Studies show that women in America win election at the same rate as men.

In fact, since 1988, female candidates in Democratic congressional primaries around the country have fared slightly better than male candidates. (Tell that to Clark's questioner.) Rather, Pearson said, female underrepresentation is the result of the smaller proportion of women running for office.

Research has documented a "gender gap in political ambition," Pearson explained at last week's College of Continuing Education seminar about the 1970s, "Putting Women's Rights on the Political Agenda." She cited her own research and a multiyear study by political scientists Jenniver Lawless of Brown University and Richard Fox of Loyola Marymount University, summarized for the Brookings Institution in 2008.

In Pearson's surveys of her students, three out of five men say they expect to run for office someday, compared with just a third of women.

Lawless and Fox found that, despite 40 years of feminist consciousness-raising, women are less likely than similarly situated men to perceive themselves as qualified for elective office.

But they are also less likely to perceive the political climate as fair or civil, less willing to spend their days soliciting campaign donations, less accepting of the loss of privacy and family time that today's campaigns entail, and less tolerant of the personal attacks and partisan hostility that have become the political coin of the realm.

One might draw two sets of conclusions from those findings. Let's label them "20th century" and "21st century."

The 20th-century response would be to exhort women to become more like men -- or at least like the stereotypical American male circa 1970. The message would be that if women want to play a man's game -- in politics, or business, medicine, law, you-name-it -- they had better toughen up.

My guess is that today's women are either old enough to be tired of that take, or young and spunky enough to reject it.

A 21st-century analysis would argue that women aren't the ones who need to adapt. Their full participation in the governance of this republican democracy is both needed and wanted. To the extent the political system doesn't match their values, the system ought to change.

The dehumanizing features of today's political practice deter participation by good men as well as good women. Plenty of would-be candidates of both genders never file because they recoil at spending half and more of their time begging for money. Plenty are turned off by the way today's politics invade personal and family lives.

And Minnesotans by the scores, men and women, have told me that they detest today's scorched-earth partisanship that leaves reputations and respect for the two-party system in ashes.

For at least 40 years, Minnesota feminists have been pushing to elect more women. They've become adept at raising and donating money toward that end. The research Pearson cites says that helping women candidates financially is necessary but not sufficient to achieving their goal.

Some wise women have suggested that making the American workplace more female- and family-friendly ought to be the next great mission of the women's movement, one that can engage men, too. I'd say that's a great idea, especially if the workplaces on their reform list include the capitols in Washington and St. Paul.


Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.