DES MOINES (AP) — When Iowa lawmakers started their legislative session this month, 35 women were among those officials reporting to the Capitol.
That matched the state’s record for women in the General Assembly, but despite increasing their numbers in Des Moines over the years, women in Iowa continue to struggle with a political glass ceiling. The state has never elected a women governor and is one of just four states to never send a woman to Congress.
Just why Iowa lags behind the rest of the country is a bit of a mystery.
“Why is Iowa at the bottom of the heap? We have been reading and talking to people and trying to figure it out for years,” said Jean Lloyd-Jones, a former Democratic state legislator who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 1992. “Iowa is a progressive state in so many ways.”
The other states that have never elected a woman to Congress are Delaware, Mississippi and Vermont.
There are several likely reasons that Iowa politics remains a boys club. There’s the lack of term limits in the governor’s office and the low turnover of the state’s congressional seats, meaning there are rarely open seats for women to pursue. Republican Gov. Terry Branstad is on his second stint in the governor’s office, after a 16-year run that ended in January 1999. Republican Sen. Charles Grassley has served 32 years and Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin for 28.
“We don’t throw our incumbents out unless they really do something horrible,” said Roxanne Conlin, a Democrat who was the state’s first woman candidate for governor in 1982 and ran for U.S. Senate in 2010.
Research also shows that women are less likely to consider running for office because of family responsibilities or a perception that they are not qualified. And the fact that Iowa is a largely rural state with many traditional, conservative voters can make it harder for women to break in.
Women in elected office said more women should be recruited to run so that a pool of candidates can be groomed to move up as bigger jobs became available.
“It has taken us longer and that’s disappointing,” said Senate President Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque. “We need to do a better job of recruiting women who can win in the districts where they run.”
House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, agreed.
“I think part of it is that women haven’t stepped up to do that as often. Women don’t have as long political careers and part of that is cultural. Women are still viewed as primary caregivers in most cases,” Upmeyer said. “I think we have to get more women into the pipeline.”
Iowa’s neighboring states have more women in top political positions. Wisconsin just elected Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Nebraska voted in Sen. Deb Fischer. Sen. Amy Klobuchar represents Minnesota and Sen. Claire McCaskill in Missouri. And Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Missouri all have women in the U.S. House.
“It is a conundrum because I think in general we consider ourselves to be pretty progressive. We voted for Obama twice,” said Conlin.
Women make up about 23 percent of the Legislature, putting Iowa in 25th place when it comes to female representation in the state General Assembly, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Dianne Bystrom, director of the Center for Women in Politics at Iowa State University, said that when women run for legislative seats, they are just as successful as men. She said that open seats were the best opportunities for women candidates.
“We need to recruit more women to run and we need to recruit them to run in open seat races where we have more chances to win,” Bystrom said.
The Center for Women in Politics runs candidate training programs. So does an effort Lloyd-Jones co-founded, geared at getting women into office called “50/50 in 2020.” And there are some women being discussed for top jobs in the future. Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds is widely viewed as a possible candidate for governor in the future. Gov. Branstad has not yet declared if he will run for another term.
Bystrom noted that New Hampshire recently became the first state to send an entirely female delegation to Washington. She pointed to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s election as the state’s first female governor in 1996 as a game-changing event for the state.
“She became a role model for women to run. To break out of where we are, we need a woman to win in the governor’s office,” Bystrom said. “It would be a glass ceiling shattering event.”