Voters in the commonwealth are witnessing history in real time. While the state trails others nationally in terms of female representation in public office, several female leaders have broken barriers and achieved new heights in Pennsylvania in recent years.
One person focused on that mission is Dana Brown, executive director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University. Brown leads the center’s programming, which is focused on increasing womens’ influence and leadership in public life and providing them with educational and training opportunities in politics and public policy. She told us a little bit about her work and how it’s changed the dynamics across the state.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
How did you initially get involved in the political space?
I’m an educator and we just happen to educate and train women to run for public office as well as get involved in public leadership at large, which could include appointments and government service. We educate students along the lines of civic engagement and democratic learning.
What about the Center for Women and Politics caught your eye?
I was really excited when the position became open, now 12 years ago. I thought it was a really unique opportunity for me to make a difference in my home state in the commonwealth, and I could put to use my skill set for political science and some of the practical skills that I had learned and developed along the way … It was a really nice marriage for me, my home state, the literature I know so well, and (the want) to make this really positive difference for, frankly, all Pennsylvanians. All the political science literature leads me to say that we all do benefit when we have increased gender diversification in our governing bodies.
What were the center’s operations like when you arrived and what did you look to prioritize once you took over?
When I started at the center, it had been vacant for over a year in their search for a new executive director, so it was a bit of a shell. The mission was there, but unfortunately there weren’t a lot of educational programs to support that mission. There was one program, the NEW Leadership Summer Institute, but it was in need of a stronger direction because it wasn’t really having the impact it could have possibly had, in my opinion. I worked with a statewide advisory committee in addition to an on-campus advisory group and we created a couple of signature programs. Now, we offer the Elsie Hillman Chair in Women and Politics, which is a great regional event for southwestern PA where we bring in a national speaker to focus on women and politics. We also established the Ready to Run campaign training program, which is a one-day nonpartisan campaign training program for women. And also part of that we have a pre-conference for women of color because running for office as a woman of color in Pennsylvania, oftentimes, you have to take into consideration how the intersection of race and place is occurring in your campaign.
Reproductive rights were a focal point for many voters this election cycle. How do you deal with the complexities of the issue and do those complications affect the way female voters approach the issue?
I think surprising to many is actually how many Pennsylvanians are in support of reproductive rights. So much has been written in the media about the strong anti-abortion activists that sort of got us where we are and how strong they are at turning out. But while women aren’t a monolith, there’s also evidence that this is not actually quite the partisan issue that folks have always talked about. It’s become partisan in the way you see elected leaders vote sort of along party lines about this issue. But when you start to take a look at statewide polls in Pennsylvania and other states like Kansas, we know there are Republican women who do support access to abortion and reproductive rights. I think it demonstrates the complexity of this issue.
Lawmakers in Harrisburg have appointed women to leadership positions. What does it mean to you to see these women reaching new heights in government in the commonwealth?
It’s about time. It’s exciting. For the first time ever, half of the Legislative Reapportionment Commission were women because of Kim Ward and Joanna McClinton. Prior to that, women’s voices hadn’t actually been part of the redistricting process in that way. We have a higher proportion of women serving in the General Assembly in Pennsylvania. But there’s also still a way to go. Only about 29% of the state Legislature is female … I think we’re ranked 30th in the nation today. Our rankings have improved because our percentage of female legislators has increased, but sadly, it’s also because some other states have gotten worse in terms of female representation, like West Virginia, for example. They’ve been losing seats for women in the state Legislature, so rankings to me sometimes … don’t tell the full story. But yes, having 29% women in the state Legislature is much better than when I started. There’s been a great improvement.
What would you say are among your biggest accomplishments?
I'm always so proud of the graduates of our programs, whether it's college students from NEW Leadership or community members and community leaders coming out in Ready to Run and launching their first campaigns. I'm tremendously proud of them because they're the ones who are really doing the work, right? I'm just an educator, but they're the ones who are taking the tools that we teach them and doing the hard work.