In 1999, former Councilwoman Happy Fernandez became the first credible female candidate for mayor in Philadelphia’s history. She was clobbered, winning just six percent of the vote and finishing fourth in a field of six. But Fernandez still acquitted herself well: The campaign was thoughtful, her credentials were impeccable, and the press and her rivals treated her seriously. She ought to have been the first of many credible female candidates for the job. But so far, she’s been the only one. With the cartoonish exceptions of fringe candidate Queena Bass and accidental 2011 GOP nominee Karen Brown, no woman has so much as gathered signatures for the city’s top political job since.
And the mayor’s office is no anomaly. There are 21 Pennsylvanians representing the state in Washington, D.C. (two senators, 19 House members)—and just one woman among them, Democratic Rep Allyson Schwarz. There are so few women in elected office in Harrisburg that the Commonwealth annually competes with the likes of Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina for the title of Most Mad Men-Like State Capital. This year, Pennsylvania ranks 42nd in the nation in female statehouse representation, which is actually a high-water mark.
Powerful local women blame the old-boy network. And the Democratic machine. And the testosterone-fueled political thuggery endemic to Philadelphia. They blame the conflict between family life and the relentless demands of political life. But the more thoughtful ones also blame themselves.
After all, there are informal networks that protect entrenched interests in every corner of America, and that hasn’t stopped Chicago, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, D.C., Atlanta, Houston, Dallas and Phoenix (among others) from electing female mayors. Politics is every bit the blood sport in New Jersey and Illinois that it is in Pennsylvania, and yet those states rank in the top 10 for female statehouse representation.
The biggest difference is that elsewhere, women actually run. They win some, they lose some, but they run. Here, civic-minded women more often than not take a pass. Some are just risk-averse. Some are waiting for the perfect moment. Some figure the system is so dysfunctional that they can do as much or more from behind the scenes, or through nonprofit leadership. And then there’s the most depressing reason of all: Plenty aren’t convinced they belong in the game. Too many women seem to lack the confidence to even try. Former District Attorney Lynne Abraham, who is the ultimate exception to the Philadelphia rule of meek female political leadership, says that many women in this town have no taste for political melee. “Fighting for political office has never been for sissies,” she says, “male or female.”