Albany County Legislator Joanne Cunningham would not have gotten involved in politics if not for her mother.
"She grew up in an era where everyone got married and had a family," the Delmar Democrat says. "She did what every mom did at the time: stay home with her six kids."
But then both of her parents got involved in local politics — her dad ran for office and her mom became the Democratic chairwoman of New Hartford in Oneida County, traveling to the 1976 Democratic convention as a delegate for Jimmy Carter. Cunningham and her friends, pre-teens at the time, spent Saturdays campaigning with her parents. And when those friends turned 18, her mom drove them to the board of elections to register them as Democrats.
To this day, campaigning is something Cunningham still loves. "I spent a lot of time going door to door and meeting people, talking to people," she says. She remembers the tune she and a childhood friend made up for her dad, sung to the tune of "Row Row Row Your Boat" ("Vote vote vote for Earl"). "For me, that was kind of the fun part."
Cunningham speculates that if her mother had been born just a couple of decades later, "she would be the CEO of an organization," she says. "She would be running for office. She would be traveling to D.C. and lobbying on behalf of a cause."
Cunningham's mother died last year after a 13-year struggle with Alzheimer's. She never saw her daughter run for office. When Cunningham and her daughters watched Hillary Clinton accept the Democratic nomination for president, it was an emotional moment for Cunningham. Her mother had been "a huge, huge Hillary fan."
"I couldn't help but feel like my mother, from wherever she is, was experiencing this great moment," Cunningham says.
We talked to 30 women politicians in New York at all levels of government about what the political climate looks like in 2016, the year the United States might elect its first-ever woman president. We talked to first-term school board members, county legislators, women who are the first of their gender to hold roles in the Democratic conference or to represent their senate district, and we talked to women who've served at the national level.
We wanted to find out why it's taken so long for a woman to come this close to the White House. How has the number of women in politics changed over the decades? What deters women from entering politics, and how are they perceived once they get there? Why are women's voices essential to a well-functioning democracy? And where do we go from here?
This is the first in a four-part series that responds to those questions, which don't always have clear or satisfying answers. But we hope that by raising them, and letting women speak for themselves and their experiences, we might come closer to figuring out why it took 240 years for this moment, and also why the U.S. ranks so far behind the rest of the world: The first woman head of government ever elected was Sirimavo Bandaranaike, of what's now known as Sri Lanka, in 1960. Benazir Bhutto twice served as prime minister of Pakistan. Margaret Thatcher became prime minister of the U.K. in 1979. And just last month, Theresa May became the U.K.'s second woman prime minister.
Women hold about 20 percent of the seats in U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. That's lower than the global legislative average, which is about 22.8 percent, according to data compiled by the United Nations. (Rwanda has the highest number of women parliamentarians worldwide. Women there have won 63.8 percent of seats in the lower house of parliament.)
In terms of representation of women in the state legislature, New York stands at number 20 nationwide, says Dina Refki, director of the Center for Women in Government and Civil Society at the University at Albany. That's about 26 percent of legislative seats occupied by women. She says that's an improvement. In 1974, we were 36th.
So things are moving but not quite at warp speed. There were modest gains in the 1970s "largely because of the women's movement," according to Zoe Oxley, political science professor at Union College. And after 1992, a historic number of women were elected to Congress. That was following the Anita Hill hearings, in which a former law clerk (Hill) had accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomasof sexually harassing her. "This image of this panel of men questioning a woman about sexual harassment angered a number of women and encouraged a number of women to run for office to right what they saw as a wrong," Oxley says. Then, she says, that number leveled off in the 2000s.
"One factor was pretty clear: the increased focus on terrorism and national security following the 9/11 attacks," Oxley says. "There's still somewhat of a voter perception that men are better than women in national security issues."
Which might translate to leadership in general.
"We still have really deeply embedded stereotypes about women and leadership," Refki says. As a culture, we believe "that women are somehow not fit for leadership, that they don't have skills or qualifications to be leaders."
She adds that research shows perception persists that women aren't "competent" enough to "make decisions that impact people and that they do not have problem-solving skills that would qualify them to be critical leaders."
"Politics is still the domain of men," Refki says. "These perceptions are so very much entrenched in our psyche."
Historically, men and women have largely been relegated to separate spheres: the public and the private. Women are suited for leadership in the home; men, outside the home. "That's an unconscious bias that not just men have but women have, too," Refki says.
The women politicians we talked to largely agreed that that private-sphere obligation can be a major deterrent to entering political life.
"There are times when my kids have walked home in the rain. More times than I care to count," says Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy, D-Albany, who's devoted her career to politics. "In general, women hesitate more than men, partly because it's all-consuming and it's a difficult thing to manage. For me, it's a seven-day-a-week job. It's a 24/7 job. It can be extremely difficult."
"I went to the Assembly when my youngest was 15, and I was getting divorced," says New York State Senator Betty Little. "If he was younger, I wouldn't have gone to Albany. It's difficult for women to be away from home like that. They have responsibilities at home — parents and a husband to take care of. And that burden falls on women more than men."
Studies show that women are still primary caretakers at home — even as women now make up half of the workforce. The Bureau of Labor Statistics' annual Time Use Survey showed in 2014 that the percentages of men and women who are involved in household activities — defined as housework, cooking, cleaning up after cooking, and generally taking care of the household — has hardly moved since 2003, when the bureau began tracking Americans' day-to-day activities. Eleven years earlier, 63 percent of men reported doing some household activity, while 84 percent of women did. In 2014, the numbers were almost the same, according to a report by Bloomberg: 65 percent for men and 83 percent for women.
And politics, even at a local level, is time-consuming. "It's very demanding of your personal time," says Leesa Perazzo, president of the Schenectady City Council. "I hold a full-time job at Proctors and my City Council job is part time. It is not uncommon for me to be out of the house five nights a week until 8:30 or 9 o'clock."
"I could not have run and worked full time," says Cynthia Doran, who serves on the Rensselaer County Legislature. "It seems that women have to juggle things differently, and I do believe that's a reason why many don't get involved."
Fundraising is difficult, too. For all genders, actually. But Albany County Legislator Alison McLean Lane points out women are starting at a disadvantage: "Women, in general, do not make as much money as men. But to think [women] go out every single night, which takes away time from your family, and raise money is very challenging."
Oxley also points out that "women's fundraising networks aren't as automatically set up as men's are on average, in part because of men's professional backgrounds." She adds that community social networks "are still tilted toward men's involvement, so you may be a lawyer in a small city and you get asked to serve on some boards at a higher rate than women or maybe women get asked but because of family obligations she has to turn them down." Those can be important initial fundraising networks.
"I think fundraising has historically been tougher for women running for elected office," says New York State Sen. Liz Krueger. She says campaign-finance reform could help balance the scales and get more women in office.
"I'm a big believer in low-donor matching fund models of campaign finance," she says. That's when donations are matched by public funds in order to level the playing field for candidates who may not have as much money as their opponents. "I think it draws in [women] and equalizes the playing field for all kinds of candidates. I think it disproportionately helps women because women have historically had a harder time raising the money. So I think it's a real one-two punch. If we move toward campaign finance reform, we would see more women running."
Cecilia Tkaczyk was on the Duanesburg school board in 2012 when she decided to run for state Senate in the newly created 46th District. She went to her husband, shocked him with the news she was going to run, and asked him how much money he was going to give her. "There was a long pause. He said, 'How much money do you need?' And I said, 'I don't know. A lot."
Tkaczyk was motivated by deep cuts in her school budget and others in the district — concerns many others shared. She raised $253,937; George Amedore outspent her 3-1. Tkaczyk won the race by 18 votes. She lost to Amedore in 2014. The two candidates spent $6.8 million that year.
Campaigning, in addition to being expensive and time-consuming, can also be brutal. Entering the political (public) sphere can mean scrutiny of women's homes, lives and looks. Lane describes campaign literature drawn up by her opponent that depicted her as a ball and chain. ("I was stunned by that piece of literature," Lane says.)
Another thing we heard in our interviews was that women, thanks to those unconscious biases about gender, simply don't see themselves as leaders. Almost every woman we talked to was asked to run for office — in some cases, asked several times. That trend is so pervasive that U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has supported an emerging campaign — #SheShouldRun — which encourages people to nominate women or men for office by filling out a form on sheshouldrun.org.
"Most women will tell you not only did they have to be asked, they had to be asked many times, because women have a natural tendency to think of everybody else as being more qualified to do the job than they are," says state Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers. "For women, you have to ask and you have to ask multiple times."
With Clinton's nomination, it's possible more women could see themselves in politics, too. "Hillary Clinton making history as the first woman to secure a major party endorsement for president," says Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, "that ought to send a message to women that it's doable."