DES MOINES (AP) — It was among the first states to legalize same-sex marriage, and it served as the 2008 campaign liftoff site for the first black president — but Iowa also is one of just two states to never elect a female governor or member of Congress.
The other state is Mississippi — a fact that causes consternation within Iowa's political class.
With Senate and House seats open in 2014 in the aftermath of Sen. Tom Harkin's decision to retire, many think this finally could be the time for a woman to break through.
But with several high-profile possibilities having taken themselves out of consideration — most recently, Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, who decided not to run for the U.S. Senate — the prospects are unclear.
“I'm frustrated. I'm disappointed. I'm irritated,” said Roxanne Conlin, a Democrat who was the state's first female candidate for governor, in 1982, and who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2010.
“I was certainly hoping we would have female candidates for top offices. It appears to me that it is not going to happen,” Conlin said.
Just why the state that had the first female graduate of a public law school in the United States — Mary Beth Hickey, University of Iowa, 1873 — lags behind in female politicians is a bit of a head-scratcher.
“In some ways it is baffling, because it's not that it's not an open-minded state,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “It's a state with an active women's political community.”
Iowa's neighboring states have women in top political positions. Wisconsin just elected Sen. Tammy Baldwin, and Nebraska voted in Sen. Deb Fischer. Sen. Amy Klobuchar represents Minnesota, and Sen. Claire McCaskill represents Missouri. And Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, South Dakota and Missouri all have women in the U.S. House.
“I just don't know that there's a magic answer, because if there was, we would have found it,” said State Rep. Tyler Olson, who also is chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party. “It's embarrassing — it really is.”
Experts cite the lack of term limits for the governor's office and the low turnover of the state's congressional seats, meaning that there are rarely open seats for women to pursue. Republican Gov. Terry Branstad is on his second stint in the Governor's Office after a 16-year run that ended in January 1999. Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley has served 32 years, and Harkin, a Democrat, for 28.
Academic research has shown that, nationally, women are less likely to consider running for office because of family responsibilities or a perception that they are not qualified. And veteran female politicians also say that many Iowa voters hold traditional views about gender roles — perhaps a legacy of the state's small-town heritage.
“Part of it is a historic feeling that politics is a male's job,” said Maggie Tinsman, a former Republican state senator who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1996 and is co-founder of the group 50/50 in 2020, dedicated to electing women. “We're doing a lot to try and change that.”
Still, conservative states have elected women to powerful jobs. In the 2010 governor's race in Oklahoma, both candidates were women — as was the case in Nebraska in 1986, when Republican Kay Orr defeated Democrat Helen Boosalis.
Kansas, Texas and Louisiana have all had female governors, too, and female senators currently represent North Dakota and Louisiana.
Nationally, the number of women in top elected positions is mostly growing. There are 98 women now in Congress — 20 in the Senate. That's about 18 percent of the total 535 seats in both houses. Twenty years ago, there were 54 women in Congress, or 10 percent of the total.
The interest from advocacy groups and the political class in changing the gender divide in Iowa politics means that viable female candidates hear a lot of sweet talk, according to Democratic State Sen. Liz Mathis.
A well-known former TV news anchor in Waterloo and Cedar Rapids who was first elected in 2011, Mathis was seen as a top option to run in the state's 1st Congressional District after U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley announced that he would seek Harkin's Senate seat. Mathis said lawmakers and advocates lavished attention on her, telling her that she would be making history if she won.
“I was really conflicted,” she said. “Everyone put the expectation on me.”
But Mathis has a daughter in high school and decided that she didn't want to leave her family or her relatively new role in the State Senate — even though, she said, she knows she may not get another such opportunity.
“I guess it just depends on what you think success is.”
Reynolds, viewed as a rising star in the Iowa GOP, also said she made her decision based on her personal interests.
“Nobody else gets to decide what the right time is for me. I get to decide that,” said Reynolds, whom Branstad appears to be grooming for a run for governor.
There are some women still pondering entering the open Senate and congressional races in Iowa, though no definite candidates have emerged.
Dianne Bystrom, director of the Center for Women in Politics at Iowa State University, said women need to be prepared to run when there are open seats, noting that studies show women need more persuasion but are just as successful as men when they don't face an incumbent.
“Women need to be more strategic,” Bystrom said. “I'm working with several women's organizations across the state to develop benches of women that are ready to run.”
Copyright 2012 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.