Glass Ceilings in Statehouses in the Northeast

PHILADELPHIA — The industrial Northeast enjoys a reputation as a cradle of liberalism, a region that voted overwhelmingly for America’s first black president, started the push on same-sex marriage rights and can reliably be found at the forefront of causes for equality. But there is a notable gap: The Democratic Party has yet to elect a female governor in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island or Massachusetts.

Even this year, with women running for governor in three of those states, it is uncertain that any of them will break the pattern. The Democratic Party in each state is rooted in urban machine politics and unions, both of which have been traditionally male dominated. And there have been fewer opportunities in those states for women to acquire executive experience in the state and local offices that are traditional steppingstones to running for governor, or to hold the levers of power in political organizations. (Philadelphia, New York and Boston have never elected female mayors.)

 

Here at a west Philadelphia Democratic ward meeting, a crowd that had gathered Thursday to hear one of the women running for governor, Congresswoman Allyson Y. Schwartz, concentrated more on eating their fried chicken than on listening to her speech, at least until Ms. Schwartz concluded her remarks with a reminder about the stakes in Tuesday’s primary. “With your help, I will be the next governor, the first woman governor,” she said, winning only her second sustained applause of the night, much of it from the women in the room.

In addition to those in Pennsylvania, women in Massachusetts and Rhode Island are vying to break the statehouse glass ceiling. But in all three states, they face contentious primaries. “The western states have done much better,” Ms. Schwartz said in an interview as an aide drove her to another male-dominated meeting of the city’s Democratic organization. “The pioneer states just treated women equally from the start.”

It is no quirk of history, according to a few dozen politicians, scholars and strategists who have examined or experienced firsthand the difficulties women have had in seeking to become chief executives in some of the flagship states of blue America.

“To say the old boys’ club is alive and well is true but trivializes the impact that the vestiges of sexism have on women’s opportunities to lead,” said State Senator Barbara Buono of New Jersey, who ran for her state’s governorship last year, but found little support from its Democratic bosses and was trounced by the incumbent, Gov. Chris Christie. Governor’s races are typically the most coveted political prizes in these states because they bring with them the most patronage jobs, the sort of clout that mostly male power brokers are reluctant to relinquish. Further, unlike with some wealthy men who have successfully run outside of the party apparatus, there have been few Democratic women willing or able to fund their own campaigns.

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