Politics & Government

Women on N.C. ballot at every level

The nomination of Sarah Palin for vice president means voters in North Carolina this year have the chance to elect women at every level of government.

Beyond Palin's historic appointment as the first GOP vice presidential nominee, Democrat Beverly Perdue could become North Carolina's first female governor. Six women are running for the Council of State. And a woman will win the election for U.S. senator; the lone man in the race serves as only token opposition.

And this flood comes on the heels of Sen. Hillary Clinton's historic run for the Democratic nomination for presidency.

“It's great. It's time we got women out there,” said Kim Cotton of Pittsboro, chairwoman of the N.C. Young Republicans. “Regardless of party, I think there are some qualified women on both sides.”

Women have made strong strides in attaining political office in the past 30 years. Yet it took 24 years from Democrat Geraldine Ferraro's run for the vice presidency for another woman to attain a spot on the Republican ticket.

And though women make up more than half the electorate, they are only 16 percent of the U.S. Senate, just 16 percent of the U.S. House of Representatives and 26 percent of the N.C. General Assembly.

Nationally, North Carolina ranks 19th in the number of women in its state legislature, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

“We've got a lot of catching up to do, don't we?” asked Margaret Haynes, a Democratic delegate from Wilmington.

“It's a building, growing thing,” said GOP state Secretary of Labor Cherie Berry, who is seeking re-election. “I don't put a lot of stock in whether women are being held back, because I don't think they are.

“Look at the ticket in North Carolina. … You start adding them up and there are a lot of women on the upper part of the ballot.”

But consider that gender politics still play a large role in both national and local politics. If the sold-out button at the Republican convention praises Palin as the “Hottest V.P.,” if Perdue's Libertarian opponent calls her a “Stepford wife,” and if the incumbent U.S. senator gets attacked for her age and then compares her opponent to a dog, have women truly shattered the glass ceiling in politics?

“The glass ceiling definitely still exists,” said Karen O'Connor, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University.

State Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat, recalled that on her first day in office 10 years ago, she walked into the legislators' cafeteria only to be asked to leave. She was shocked.

“That would never happen to a man,” said Hagan, who is running to take the seat away from Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole.

Still, Hagan said of this fall's ballot, “It's an exciting time. Women are very involved in running for public office. And they win.”

Either Hagan or Dole will be sent in January to Washington, where, former Sen. Bob Dole remembered, in the late 1960s, women went to the Senate to finish their deceased husbands' terms.

“It's changing,” he said.

Palin's nomination energized both men and women at the Republican convention, but women especially said they were thrilled.

“She's like a dream candidate,” said Jeanne Smoot, a Raleigh delegate and former member of the Reagan administration. “She started at the PTA level. I think women can identify with that. And she's pretty. And she's an athlete.”

Nancy Mazza, a Greensboro delegate and former president of the N.C. Federation of Republican Women, said she thinks young women will look up to female politicians.

“I think Palin is opening many doors, many windows with lots of opportunities for women,” Mazza said.

No doubt that women have faced barriers over the years, including in fundraising.

“There's been the good-ol'-boy network of corporate donors, in particular because these boardrooms are full of men,” Charlotte Mayor Pro-Tem Susan Burgess said.

And in many ways, women still have to exude toughness, especially when running for federal office.

McCain gave a gender-tinged shout-out in his speech to vice presidential nominee: “She stands up for what's right, and she doesn't let anyone tell her to sit down.”

Some women in politics say their gender has reached equality.

Cotton, the chairman of the N.C. Young Republicans, said she's never had trouble working with male colleagues. “If there is a glass ceiling, it's because we put it there,” Cotton said. “It's whether you're willing to fight for it.”

Staff writer Mark Johnson contributed.