Women governors

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The portraits of governors are changing. Women are being portrayed in gilt frames in increasing numbers. They are emerging as strong candidates in increasing numbers in winnable races. Nineteen women are running in the 2002 election, thirteen Democrats and six Republicans. Today there are five women governors, an all time high. Three women just won primaries in Michigan, Kansas and Arkansas. Jennifer Granholm won her party’s primary in Michigan, defeating two heavyweights – former Governor James Blanchard and House Minority leader David Bonior.

We have long awaited this sea change. Why is it happening this year?

When I was elected Governor of Vermont in 1984, I was the fourth woman in the history of the country to be elected in her own right. One assumption about politics that remains true for both men and women is that success is more likely with an open seat. Governor’s chairs open more often than either House or Senate seats. Many states have term limits, and those who don’t have unspoken rules that limit a governor’s longevity.

Governors have more exposure to the public and the press than do members of Congress. Governors, unlike members of Congress, don’t gain seniority. They don’t accumulate more power each year. Seldom do they have a lock on the office.

One reason for the record number of women gubernatorial candidates is that more women now hold state-wide office, like secretary of state and lieutenant governor. Jennifer Granholm was her state’s attorney general, a good launching pad for governor. She was a Phi Beta Kappa and a former beauty queen, to boot.

Recently the public has become accustomed to seeing women in high political office. A woman at the helm is no longer considered an oddity. Instead she is seen as a refreshing change. In the past, women have found it easier to get elected to a legislative position than an executive seat. This is no longer necessarily so. As women rise to executive leadership in the private sector, they help change the stereotype of the male CEO. Public confidence in women’s ability to do the job and be tough enough to handle a crisis has increased as women have demonstrated their executive ability.

In at least two races, women will be running against women in the general election. It was inevitable that this would happen, and perhaps it’s a sign of success. No woman wants to be elected only because she is a woman. Neither does she want to be defeated because she’s a woman. Today that is not likely to happen. What we are seeing for the first time is the growth of a strong farm team of women governors from which the first female president is likely to be chosen.

That will be the real test for women in politics – when we cheer the first Madam President of the United States. I can’t wait.

This is Madeleine May Kunin.

Madeleine Kunin is a former governor of Vermont.

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