What’s The Matter With Iowa?

In 1869, 50 years before women gained universal suffrage, Iowa was one of the first states to elect a woman to political office. Today, 145 years later, progress has slowed. The state is one of just two remaining that have never elected a woman to Congress or as governor. The only other state besides Iowa to hold this ignoble distinction is Mississippi.

Iowa even makes Alabama, which currently has two women in its congressional delegation, look downright progressive when it comes to gender parity.

If you’re surprised to hear that the Hawkeye State has never elected a woman to high office, you aren’t the only one. We asked a number of Iowans on the street how many women were among the more than 200 congressmen and senators their states has elected in its history.

“Probably five,” guessed Aubrey Resor of Des Moines. Julie Griffin figured there must’ve been “30 to 40″ women elected in Iowan history.

“Seven?” wondered Jason Camp.

A New Contender

Staci Appel doesn’t shy away from the fact that she’s standing on the cusp of history. Appel has won lower office in Iowa in the past, serving as a state senator from 2007 to 2010. She is now the Democratic nominee in Iowa’s 3rd congressional district, a moderate district that includes Des Moines and southwest Iowa. Similarly, in Iowa’s open Senate seat, Republicans nominated Joni Ernst, a state senator currently in her third year in office.

With two well-qualified female candidates running, 2014 is perhaps the best chance Iowa has ever had to send a woman to Washington D.C.

(A third woman, Mariannette Miller-Meeks, is the Republican nominee in Iowa’s 2nd congressional district, but she faces Rep. Dave Loebsack (D-IA) in a strongly-Democratic part of the state.)

A volunteer makes calls during a Staci Appel phone bank CREDIT: Scott Keyes
A volunteer makes calls during a Staci Appel phone bank CREDIT: Scott Keyes

“If elected, Staci would be the first woman Iowa has ever sent to Congress,” volunteers reminded voters at a recent women-to-women phone bank ThinkProgress attended. They also mentioned Republicans’ attacks on birth control and their opposition to legislation designed to close the wage gap between men and women. Her supporter group Appel Women for Change, which has more than 1,600 members, encourages voters to “make history this year, by electing a woman to Congress”, a fact also mentioned in her ads.

Though Appel embraces the fact that she’s running to be Iowa’s first ever woman in Congress. But don’t think she’s running a substanceless campaign simply in the hopes of becoming a recordbreaker. “To break the glass ceiling is kind of a byproduct” of running on issues she’s long worked on, she told ThinkProgress, including ones especially important to women.

In many ways, the two women are taking different approaches while vying for the same goal. Ernst, who earned notoriety for advertisements showing her riding a motorcycle, shooting guns, and talking about her history of castrating hogs, rarely mentions issues like the wage gap and preventative health that are important to women. (Ernst’s campaign didn’t respond to an interview request.) Appel, meanwhile, actively campaigns on these ideas.

In 2009, for instance, Appel led the fight for an equal-pay-for-equal-work bill in Iowa and succeeded in getting it passed into law over Republicans’ objections. She doesn’t downplay this fact in fear of being typecast by some voters as a candidate only trying to appeal to women, but actively champions the issue. “Paycheck fairness is extremely important here in the state of Iowa,” she told ThinkProgress, and committed to fighting for the matter in Congress. It’s also a theme she touts in her biography and paid advertisements.

It’s not just equal pay. Her website prominently highlights the importance of women’s health, including protecting reproductive rights and fighting to protect “women’s right to privacy and access to preventative care.”

A number of Appel volunteers ThinkProgress spoke with were driven in part by the prospect of being part of a historic campaign to elect Iowa’s first woman to high office. “It’s time for women to make our voices heard,” said Carol Mueller, 72, of Polk City. Still, she cautioned that for her it wasn’t just a matter of getting a woman elected, but also about a candidate’s values. Lindsey Mack, an incoming college freshman from Des Moines, expressed her outrage at the persistence of the wage gap. “The idea that I could be paid less for the same job is ridiculous,” she said when ThinkProgress asked what prompted her to volunteer on the campaign.

Both predicted that this year would finally be the year for Iowa women.

Behind Iowa’s Glass Ceiling

Unlike Mississippi, Iowa has a progressive history. It was the fourth state both to pass the Equal Rights Amendment and to legalize marriage equality. It allows citizens to register to vote on Election Day, a leading progressive voting reform. It’s voted for the Democratic nominee in five of the last six presidential elections.

There are a number of states that have elected just a single woman to high office. Alaska has only had Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who was appointed to the Senate by her father, then-Gov. Frank Murkowski (R). Vermont and Delaware have each had a single female governor and no congresswomen or senators. And yet, this, woman-free stain remains a distinction of Iowa and Mississippi alone. Even if it only has one fewer elected woman than places like Alaska and Delaware, those states are less populous than Iowa, and thus have fewer possible seats. They have a trailblazer in a more challenging environment; Iowa has none.

When we asked voters for their theory on why Iowa has never elected a woman, the number one response was sexism. “Misogynist powers that be have a good hold on it,” Griffin told ThinkProgress. Mary Fox, a 70-year-old woman from Johnston, agreed. “Sexism has played a role,” she said. “I have experienced it myself in the workplace. I struggled to receive the same benefits that men do.”

Women running for office have not been immune to misogyny. Roxanne Conlin, who ran for governor in 1982, recounted to NPR about introducing herself as a gubernatorial candidate to a group of farmers and watching them “collapse in laughter.” “That was the kind of thing I faced all the time back then,” she said.

Many academics, meanwhile, point to a different reason for the lack of female representation: incumbency.

Joni Ernst (R) is vying to become Iowa’s first woman elected to the U.S. Senate CREDIT: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
Joni Ernst (R) is vying to become Iowa’s first woman elected to the U.S. Senate CREDIT: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

“The single most important factor is that men are incumbents, and incumbents win,” Dr. Arthur Sanders, a political science professor at Drake University, told ThinkProgress.Indeed, nationwide, more than 90 percent of congressional incumbents get re-elected on average every cycle. This is due to a number of factors, such as higher name recognition and easier fundraising.

Perhaps more than any other state in the nation, Iowans love their incumbents. In the last twenty years, only a single congressman was defeated for re-election (excluding redistricting years when two incumbents squared off). The last time they elected a new senator Ronald Reagan was president, despite the fact that the two sitting senators are polar opposites ideologically. The persistence of Iowa incumbents, aided by a friendlier political atmosphere than other parts of the country, “has always limited the opportunity” for female candidates, Sanders noted. (Rep. Tom Latham [R-IA], the incumbent in the district where Appel is running, announced in December that he wasn’t running for re-election.)

But even when seats do open up, Iowa women have not fared well. In 1994, Sheila McGuire (D) was handily defeated for an open seat in Iowa’s 4th congressional district. This year, three women, including a state representative, vied for the incumbent-less Democratic nomination in Iowa’s 1st congressional district. A man won the nomination.

Sexism and incumbency need not be mutually exclusive explanations. In many ways, sexism is an intractable aspect of the incumbency effect. As candidate Roxanne Conlin’s experience attests, women have long faced obstacles to running for office that men have not. In this sense, incumbency is just another word for the old boy’s club.

Sanders pointed to two other factors contributing to the dearth of women in Iowa’s political history. First, political parties have been quite strong in Iowa and, historically speaking, leadership and donors in both parties have been reticent to support women running for office. Sanders noted that in the past, unions — an instrumental part of the Democratic coalition — had stifled women on the left, while conservative ideologues, who at the very least don’t view diversity as an important goal, hindered many women on the right.

Also hurting the cause is the fact that, for a variety of reasons, men are more likely to run for office than women. Study after study has found that women receive far less encouragement to run for office than men. Even in 2014, women still do the lion’s share of housework and childcare, and are more likely to interrupt their careers in order to raise kids. Professionally ambitious women also tend to face questions that few males face, like when Matt Lauer recently asked Generals Motors CEO Mary Barra if she can be an auto executive and a mother of two. Women are subjected to more judgment based on their appearance, and studies by the Women’s Media Center have found that mentions of appearance make it much less likely that women will get elected, regardless of whether the coverage is positive or negative.

In addition, Sanders argued, women are far more likely to value their spouse’s opinion when deciding whether or not to run. “Men who have spouses who are ambivalent about them running for office often still run for office. Women who have spouses who are ambivalent about them running for office almost never run for office.”

The final explanation for Iowa’s lack of elected women is a certain amount of sheer coincidence. To varying degrees, randomness plays an inherent role in elections. Bad luck certainly is not the sole reason Iowa women are unrepresented, but it has arguably played a role.

Will 2014 Be The Year?

There’s good reason to believe that the confluence of factors that have kept women from holding high office in Iowa — sexism, incumbency, strong political parties, and fewer women candidates — might finally recede this year.

While few people — and certainly no women — would argue that sexism no longer exists, its potency has clearly declined over the years. Unlike Roxanne Collins, who was literally laughed at for having the audacity to run for governor in 1982, Staci Appel says she hasn’t personally encountered any blatant sexism on the campaign trail. “Iowa’s progressed and they want the strongest people up there making decisions for them,” she told ThinkProgress.

Although Iowa has never sent a woman to Congress or the governor’s mansion, the past five lieutenant governors, including current Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds (R), have all been women. Iowa also ranks in the middle of all states in terms of female representation in the state legislature with 35 of the 150 legislative seats being held by women.

Though the incumbency effect remains strong, there are no incumbents in Appel’s and Ernst’s races. The irony is that the incumbency effect, which has long kept Iowa women out of office, could soon be a factor that helps keep the first elected woman in office.

“If you look at the power of incumbency, women incumbents are as likely to get reelected as male incumbents,” Sanders noted.

In addition, the power of political parties is diminishing, in large part due to the advent of independent spending groups. Where candidates were once solely reliant on currying favor with party insiders in order to win support for their candidacy, national organizations are now pumping in large sums of money on behalf of their preferred candidate.

We may be approaching a tipping point in Iowa this fall.

Some of these organizations are also helping encourage more women to run in the first place. For instance, EMILY’s List, a group dedicated to electing more pro-choice women across the country, was an early supporter of Appel, as was a local Iowa version, DAWN’s List.

Given this perfect storm, we may be approaching a tipping point in Iowa this fall. With rising stars like Appel, Ernst, Reynolds, and others, Iowa could soon go from never having elected a woman to having multiple women in its delegation at the same time.

This progress is replicating itself nationally as well, as women begin to fill more seats in Congress and take a larger portion of state governments. However, the pace is slow enough that Cynthia Terrell of FairVote estimates it will take 500 years for women to reach parity in representation.

If an Iowa woman is elected in 2014, “the message it would send is so strong,” Clare Bresnahan, Political and Programs Director for the Women’s Campaign Fund, told ThinkProgress. “I think it would show that in places where women haven’t been elected to federal office, people are ready for women’s leadership.”

Though shattering that glass ceiling would be a major progressive victory in Iowa, voters aren’t necessarily prioritizing it over their partisan leanings. Even as women ThinkProgress spoke with cited the importance of electing the first female to Congress, that doesn’t mean they want just any woman. Recent polls in Iowa’s Senate race have shown Braley leading among women by 11 points, while Ernst leads among men by four points, for instance.

This tension was evident in volunteer Mary Fox as she made calls at Appel’s women-to-women phone bank. “I have been working to see a woman elected in Iowa all of my life,” she said. But when asked whether this desire would push her to support Ernst for Senate, Fox shifted uncomfortably and took a moment before responding. “She doesn’t represent my values. I don’t want her elected.”