Maryland’s female politicians were shattering glass ceilings decades ago, putting the state in the vanguard of electing women to federal office.
But now, as Hillary Clinton makes history as a major party’s first female presidential candidate, progress has stalled in a place that once led the way in political gender equality, and it appears to be falling behind.
“The pipeline, for women, is leaking,” says Connie Morella, a Republican and eight-term former congresswoman.
Fewer Maryland women have been willing to run for local and state offices that would eventually catapult them onto the federal stage. Research and experts say it’s more difficult to recruit female candidates. With a dearth of women in politics, the public can expect different policies to come out of the legislative process.
Back in 1985, women made up half of Maryland’s congressional delegation, and the milestone was bipartisan. Victories at the federal level had sprung from wins in Maryland’s local offices, ones now held overwhelmingly by men.
“We don’t have a deep bench of women who have served in local office,” says Diane Fink, who runs Emerge Maryland, which recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office.
“Even though Maryland was at the very top at some point,” she says, “we’ve fallen behind.”
Decades ago, Maryland women rose from city councils and school boards, often through the General Assembly, and into congressional offices. That pipeline was among the strongest in the country. By 2005, women accounted for more than a third of Maryland’s legislature, the highest proportion in the nation.
Then it started to slide.
Policymakers and party leaders worry that the prospect of an all-male delegation could change the issues addressed, and that it could take a long time before Maryland could reach the gender parity milestone again.
“We need more women in politics,” says Chuck Conner, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party.
Two Republican women are campaigning to join the congressional delegation — running against better-funded male opponents in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 2 to 1. GOP leaders recognize them as the exception to the rule.
“Gender roles are still part of society, and until we move past those roles, it might be hard to get more women involved,” says Joe Cluster, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party. “We’re actively always looking for women to run for office.”
In the Maryland State House, women hold 60 of the 188 legislative seats — placing the state seventh in the nation in electing women, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Meanwhile, the bench of experienced politicians ready to either join the General Assembly or launch a bid for Congress is overwhelmingly male.
Including Baltimore City, only three of Maryland’s 10 jurisdictions with executives are led by women — the normal training ground for candidates for Congress or governor.
On county councils and county commissions across the state, women make up less than 15 percent of the elected leaders.
Fink says there is just one woman under 40 on a county council in the entire state — Councilwoman Jessica Fitzwater in Frederick. Many men who eventually run for higher office are holding these seats in their 20s and 30s.
The possibility of an all-male congressional delegation, women of both parties and political experts say, could mark a shift in focus and a change in how lawmakers approach problems.
When Mikulski and Morella served together, for instance, the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues pressed for what became a landmark investigation into how the National Institutes of Health conducted research. The General Accountability Office’s 1990 study found most clinical studies were still conducted on men. Together, Mikulski and Morella led the fight to make sure potential cures for diseases that primarily affect women were studied that way.
Maryland’s women were at the forefront of national fights for reversing pay discrimination and protecting domestic violence victims.
Women’s potential absence from the delegation concerns both parties.
“I am perplexed and disturbed,” says Baltimore Democrat Del. Maggie McIntosh, chair of the General Assembly’s powerful Appropriations Committee. Before she got into politics, she worked for Mikulski and she considers herself one of Maryland’s women who stayed on the bench when there was a chance to move up.
She had an opportunity to run for a seat now held by Rep. John Sarbanes but decided against it.
“It was at a place and time in my life when it didn’t work,” McIntosh says.
But she hopes enough women are climbing the ladder to eventually replenish the ranks in the congressional delegation.
“Women bring, I think, a portfolio of issues that ... haven’t been on the agenda of a predominantly male Congress,” she says. “Equal pay for equal work? This is 2016, and we’re still fighting this fight and wanting this discussion. Even though there are many, many men who are very supportive, it is women in the legislative process who keep it on the front burner.”
“It is a little bit troubling,” says House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga, the state’s highest-ranking Republican woman, who is running what is considered a long-shot campaign in Democratic Maryland to succeed Mikulski.
“These grandes dames, they did a lot of the hard work in forging the way for us, and frankly, it’s one of the reasons I’m running,” she says.
Szeliga faces well-funded and popular Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen. GOP candidate Amie Hoeber is trying to unseat two-term Democrat Rep. John Delaney in a Western Maryland district he won by less than 3,000 votes.
If neither succeeds, all 10 politicians Maryland sends to Congress will be men.*
Obstacles to running
But Szeliga understands why fewer women run for or even consider higher office.
“The rhetoric has turned, in some ways, personal,” she says. “It certainly is not going to attract women to put their name on the ballot and be the person who stands up there and lets people throw eggs at them.”
More women than men have to be persuaded to run for public office, according to a 2014 survey of lawmakers by the nonpartisan Political Parity. Once they decide to run, many women said they didn’t receive the institutional support they need to raise enough money to win.
“When they consider running for office, often women think they have to be twice as good to go half as far,” says Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women in Politics Institute at American University.
She says there is a widespread misperception that female candidates face institutional bias and are held to double standards by the public and the press, which Lawless says deter women from seeking office and donors from helping them.
But in her new book, “Women on the Run,” Lawless found that the female candidates have become so common, and that partisan politics have become so entrenched, that voters care more about party affiliation than gender. After examining how female candidates were treated by the media and the public in every congressional race across the U.S. in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections, she found gender made no difference.
“When women compete, they win just as often as men do, but that means that they lose just as often.”
Some leave the political world after getting a taste of its realities. Former Del. Heather Mizeur had a small and devoted following in her 2014 bid for governor, but she left public office after losing the Democratic primary and has no plans to run again — not as long as she has to raise money to do it.
“Politics is still very much oriented to a male professional model,” Mizeur says. “You have to go out there and ask for money and prove yourself, and they’ll give you money. In a women’s world, everything that should be, should be. I shouldn’t have to ask for a raise — you should see how qualified I am; pay me what I’m worth.”
There are efforts afoot to encourage women to run, such as Emerge Maryland.
Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, co-hosts an annual event to get college women from both parties interested in running for public office.
“Men are self-starters, and that’s the difference,” Kromer says. Until women are persuaded to envision themselves in office, there won’t be enough people standing in line to compete for a congressional seat.
“You have to have a pool. You have to have a group of women who are ready to step up when a Senate seat becomes available,” she says.
Although research has shown women, on average, need to be asked several times to run for political office before they agree, that wasn’t the case for state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, who won Baltimore’s Democratic mayoral primary in the spring and is heavily favored to win in November.
She said when she first ran for office, she never gave much thought to how many women were in office, and that she didn’t need any convincing.
“I just think that the best bubbles to the top,” Pugh says. “It wasn’t about being a woman. It was about the fact that I wanted to do it, and I knew that I could.”
* This article has been updated. An earlier version incorrectly stated that if Szeliga and Hoeber lose, the delegation would consist of white men.