Women in Nebraska politics discuss why there aren't more of them

Mayor Jean Stothert is the first woman to hold that position in Omaha. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
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October 30, 2014 - 6:30am

There are no women’s names at the top of the ticket in Nebraska’s race for governor or in the U.S. Senate race. NET News looks at trends in women running for political office in Nebraska.

In a few days, Nebraskans will head to the polls and cast their ballots. With time running out, the U.S. Senate and gubernatorial candidates are trying hard to get their names on the airwaves.

But there’s something missing from candidate pools for Senate and governor. A woman.

To be clear, there are women running for elected offices in Nebraska. Six women are running for the legislature, one for state auditor, one for attorney general, and one for lt. governor. And Deb Fisher represents Nebraska in the U.S. Senate.

In 1986, the Cornhusker state was the first to have two women as the major party candidates for governor. Kay Orr won that race, defeating Helen Boosalis. Orr is the first and only female governor in Nebraska history.

“The political science literature seems to suggest the problem with getting women elected to office isn’t that they can’t win, because they can. The problem is getting them to run in the first place," said Diane Duffin, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

According to Duffin, when it comes to legislative races women are just as electable as men.

“Other things being close to equal in terms of candidate qualifications the composition of the electorate, neither men nor women have any particular advantage in a race,” Duffin explained. “In other words, in voting for the legislature, voters don’t bring gender bias into the polls with them.”

Senator Annette Dubas has served two terms in the Nebraska Legislature. When asked what women bring to the Legislature, Dubas said, "We just are, kind of by our nature, we have more of a bent towards those human services kinds of things, things that impact children and families. Women in particular, we kind of bring that with us a little bit more and kind of wear it on our sleeves a little bit more than perhaps our male counterparts do." (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)

Nebraska currently has 10 women serving in the state legislature, which ranks it 34th in the nation. For the past eight years, Senator Annette Dubas has been one of them. She was a Democratic candidate for governor, but withdrew from the race citing personal reasons.

According to Duffin, Senator Dubas is like the majority of elected women. She has a background in education, waited to enter politics until her kids were older, and had to be asked to run for the state legislature.

“I had never given it a thought. When asked, my response back then was, ‘We have a family farm operation and I still had kids at home.’ I was very happy doing the things I was doing, I could work on my own personal agenda and the issues that were important to me. It just wasn’t an option,” Dubas said.

According to the Center for American Women in Politics, a think-tank based out of Rutgers University in New Jersey, putting off a political career in favor of raising a family is a choice women make more often than men.

The Center also found women are more likely to discount or discredit their own experiences, something Dubas said she’s seen first-hand.

“It seems like women need to be asked or encouraged to run, so we need to let them know that: number one, we believe they have something to offer and they’d be a good addition to the legislature, and number two, that we’re willing to give them the support that they need,” Dubas said.

In her experience, Dubas said she’s found women are more drawn to human services issues, and things that impact children and families.

“That’s why it’s important to have a good mix, because that’s really how you can achieve results and meet your goals,” Dubas said.

There are currently 10 women serving in the Nebraska Legislature. In terms of percentages, that ranks Nebraska 34th in the country. Diane Duffin, a political science professor from UNK, said it might not be fair to compare Nebraska's legislature to other states, though, because Nebraska only has one legislative body. (Image courtesy of flickr.com)

“When you bring those multiple perspectives and ways of getting the job done into the mix, you’re able to take on a lot more,” Dubas added.

Voters may be just as likely to elect a woman to legislatures as a man, but Diane Duffin said that’s not true of other elected offices.

“We find that even at the level of statewide executive offices—governors, attorneys general, state treasurers and the like—men still have an edge. Even when you have comparable candidates with comparable qualifications, there’s at least a statistical advantage that men are more likely to be elected to those kinds of offices,” Duffin said.

Duffin explained one reason voters may be uncomfortable with electing a woman to an executive office is because there aren’t that many women in local government, typically seen as the feeder positions for statewide executive offices.

Women occupy only 18 percent of the city council seats in Nebraska’s eight largest cities, compared to nearly 30 percent in neighboring Kansas.

After spending three years as the only woman on the Omaha city council, Jean Stothert decided to run for mayor in 2013. She won, and she’s the only woman in Omaha history who can say that.

“I never ran on my gender at all. I never even mentioned it," Stothert said.  "I ran on my abilities. I felt like when I decided to run for mayor, having 50 men precede me, I knew it was going to be a challenge. And I had many people tell me, ‘You can’t do this. You’re never going to be elected mayor of Omaha being a woman.’ And I said, ‘Whelp, we’ll show you’. And we just worked harder and we came out victorious and here we are today.”

Unlike the majority of women in politics, Stothert said she never needed to be asked to run for office. She said she’s also never been afraid to lose.

“I talk to a lot of women’s groups about running for public office, and the number one reason women give me why they don’t want to run for public office is that they’re afraid they’re going to lose,” Stothert said.

“I tell them, ‘You know what? You’re never going to win if you don’t try,’” Stothert continued, “I lost a race. So many politicians that end up in higher positions and even president of the United States have lost a race. There’s no shame in losing.”

Whether it’s a fear of losing, family responsibilities, or some other factor preventing women from entering Nebraska politics, Diane Duffin said when women don’t run, it’s hard to make any progress.

Regarding the lack of Nebraska women running for the U.S. Senate or governor this year, Duffin said she hadn’t noticed until she was asked about it.

“It did not strike me at all. It should have, but when you look at how small the pool of potential candidates is in this state, and how we don’t have that long-standing tradition of electing women to high office, it kind of makes sense.”



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