It's an irony that's not lost on Sheryl Lovelady, the director of the Women's Leadership Initiatives at the University of Oklahoma's Carl Albert Congressional Research & Studies Center as she examines the state's unfolding gubernatorial campaign between Republican U.S. Rep. Mary Fallin and Lt. Gov. Jari Askins.
"Interestingly, since we have two women running for governor, the question of gender is taken out of the election," she said.
That lack of focus on the sex of the candidates is largely a result of the fact that it's been known since July's primary elections, when Fallin and Askins both defeated their male challengers, that the state would elect its first female chief executive in November. But that doesn't mean that when the new governor is inaugurated in January it won't be a noteworthy moment in the state's history.
"I think it's incredibly significant," said Sara Jane Rose, the board president of Sally's List, an Oklahoma City-based nonprofit group organized earlier this year dedicated to recruiting and training progressive women to run for the state Legislature. "I'm not sure there aren't voters out there who wouldn't vote a person because of their gender, but this year they have no choice. It's an opportunity to take women politicians seriously, so I think it's wonderful."
Lovelady -- whose work at OU involves addressing the historic under-representation of women in politics, public service and other leadership roles -- is just as enthusiastic about seeing a female chief executive elected.
"It's going to be wonderful for women in Oklahoma," she said, explaining that the willingness of two women to run for governor -- with one of them ultimately succeeding -- will encourage other women to run for public office in the state.
Not only have women never run for or been elected to public office in Oklahoma at a rate that reflects their actual numbers, current trends are not terribly encouraging, she said, noting that only 11.4 percent of state legislators are females.
"And we don't expect to see reverses at that level, or at the statewide (public office) level, soon," she said.
A total of 35 women -- 18 Democrats and 17 Republicans -- filed to run for the state Legislature this year, Lovelady said, a figure that ties the high established in 1996. But such gains in the past historically have been offset in the next election cycle by declines, meaning there has been little improvement over time in the number of women seeking or holding legislative office in the state.
That's frustrating to Lovelady, who said statistics indicate that women -- when they do run for office -- win at the same rate as men, an indication that there is little or no gender bias among voters. Her work at the Women's Leadership Initiatives -- a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization -- seeks to improve the participation rate of women in the political process at all levels.
"We provide leadership training to girls as young as the fifth grade," Lovelady said. "We have a new leadership institute (the National Education for Women's Leadership program) in which the top female undergraduates in the state come to OU for a week-long intensive training. And we have our Pipeline to Politics program (aimed at women who have graduated from college or are already in the work force) for those who are considering either running for office or working on a campaign."
Lovelady's current focus is on The Appointments Project, a new program designed to encourage women to apply for and be appointed to statewide positions by the new governor. Representatives of both the Fallin and Askins campaign already are serving on the program's steering committee, she said.
"We feel like if we can reach parity on boards and commissions, that's a way for women to get involved in public policy," she said.
Rose's organization, though it is partisan in nature, is pursuing many of the same goals. She wants Oklahoma women to realize that politics doesn't have to be a field dominated by men.
"I think part of what Sally's List is based on is an idea that's been proven, and that is that women generally don't think of running for office independently but will consider it if they are asked," she said. "It's tough for women to picture themselves in the governor's mansion.
That's a big leap. But that fact that these two women (Fallin and Askins) have already held statewide office makes them confident."
Rose said Oklahoma ranks 49th in the country in female representation in its Legislature, so while she's pleased to see a woman poised to become governor, she realizes there's a long way to go before parity is achieved. The issues that typically are most important to women -- health care and child welfare among them -- also carry tremendous weight with the electorate at large, she said.
"It's important to get women in office who know what it's like to be someone who can't provide for your children," she said.
Sally's List was formed only in the spring, meaning its impact on the current election cycle will be minimal, Rose acknowledged.
"To find someone six months before an election doesn't give them a chance (to mount a proper campaign)," she said. "You've got to recruit them two years before."
So the members of Sally's List are focusing on a time period a little farther in the future.
"We know this is not going to happen overnight, but we're going to go out and find distinguished women candidates who are going to be viable," she said. "We'll teach them about polls and teach them about the issues. Most people in public office lose twice before they win, so we prepare them for that reality. It's a longer process than just one election. As soon as this election is over, we're going to go out and find candidates to run for office in 2012."
Lovelady agreed with Rose's assertion that women need to be encouraged to seek public office. But she said there are other factors that contribute to the gender gap in politics.
"Women typically wait until later in life to run for public office," she said. "Women tend to prioritize family life. We are now seeing women take their place financially in companies. But it's difficult for women to step down financially once they've reached one of those positions to run for office because it's not a financial reward to run for the Legislature."
Another factor that contributes to male dominance is that political action committees and party leadership positions traditionally are dominated by men, she said.
"And they've recruited more from their own Rolodexes of men," she said. "We know from national studies that women have to be recruited and encouraged. Through TAP, we'll be reaching out to quality women and encouraging them to apply."
A total of 23 states already have elected a female governor, according to statistics compiled by the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University. That number is certain to increase by at least two this year, as two states not on that list -- Oklahoma and New Mexico -- will feature gubernatorial races involving only female candidates. But the gubernatorial races in eight states that have never had a woman chief executive -- California, Florida, Georgia, Maine and Minnesota, as well as Oklahoma and New Mexico -- feature at least one female candidate, so that number could go even higher. According to CAWP, only six states have a female governor right now.
Lovelady said she was encouraged by statistics indicating that a record high was established this year nationwide in the number of women who filed to run for the U.S. House of Representatives or the U.S. Senate, a total of 262. That number was almost evenly split between 134 Democrats and 128 Republicans.
Contrasting those figures with the previous high of 222 female candidates for Congress in 1992, Lovelady said that total included 140 Democrats and only 82 Republicans. So the increase in the overall total was driven largely by GOP women, she noted, though a heavy majority of female candidates who won their primary elections and advanced to the general election continues to belong to the Democratic Party.
"The story is Republican women," Lovelady said of national trends, though she indicated that is not necessarily being repeated locally. "There are no Republican women in the (state) Senate."
Even so, change could be on the way, she said, noting that four female Republican candidates filed to run this year for the state Senate, along with four female Democrats.
"Republican women are starting to throw their hat in the ring, and we've not seen that before," she said.
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