The Women of Pennsylvania Politics
November 25, 2020
There is little question that Pennsylvania politics is shaped an electorate that is distinctly traditional in outlook. In at least one area, this has long been the source of grumbling. The state has yet to elect a woman as either Senator or Governor, and while four Democrats elected in the Blue Wave of 2018 doubled the number of women sent to Congress in seats not previously held by their deceased husbands in the history of the Commonwealth, the share of legislative seats held by women—now hovering between a fourth and a fifth—has remained far below that of comparable states.
This might not have been predicted two generations ago. The first woman to win statewide office here did so in 1954, although the results of her election would have ceremonially been reported to a state Senate with precisely no woman members. By the sixties, when it was not unusual for a law school class to include only one or two women, there were women appointed to complete unfinished terms on the appellate bench.
Despite that, the new year will bring something unprecedented to Harrisburg. Women will serve as the floor leaders of the both the state Senate Republican majority and the House Democratic minority.
Senator Kim Ward, of western Pennsylvania’s Westmoreland County, in many ways embodies the political transformation of that region. Twenty years ago, she served as GOP county chair in a place where her party barely registered in local elections before being elected to the spot guaranteed for the minority party on the board of county commissioners. As majority leader, she will return home to a county where Republicans hold every legislative seat and nearly all county offices, and where registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats in what was once the heartland of Keystone State Democrats.
Joanna McClinton of Philadelphia will play a different role in her caucus. House Democratic leadership long belonged to those able to accomodate the competing needs of urban and rural Democrats, but that dynamic has changed. Rural and small-town Democrats have all but vanished, leaving a caucus almost exclusively made up of big city and suburban lawmakers, which introduces an entirely different balancing act.
McClinton, first elected in a 2015 special election, is a comparative newcomer to the House. Broadly liked by Democrats and Republicans in the Capitol, she faces a real challenge in carving out a meaningful role for her heavily outnumbered caucus,
It is never easy to predict the course legislative leaders will set, but for the moment, a bit of history has been made on the banks of the Susquehanna River.