WASHINGTON – The wild west – it brings to mind images of cowboys and showdowns. It probably does not bring images of women in elected office.
But Democrats and Republicans both say the independent, wild west mentality of Arizona voters is one reason the state elects more women than most others.
Arizona has the third-highest percentage of women in its legislature, at 34 percent, trailing Colorado and Vermont, according to data from Rutgers’ Center for American Women and Politics.
Arizona leads the nation for female governors, with four: Rose Mofford, Jane Dee Hull, Janet Napolitano and Jan Brewer.
That is no surprise to Lisa James, who said Arizona has always been ahead of its time when it comes to women.
“We’re pioneer people,” said James, chairman of the Dodie Londen Excellence in Public Service Series, which prepares Republican women for leadership positions.
“If you were able to come out West and look at the desert and go, ‘I want to make a home here and I want to make a life here,’ you tend to be a little more forward-thinking,” James said. “So I think the wild wild west applies to also being forward-thinking in electing women in to office as well.”
Political consultant Catherine Nichols said that in Arizona the question is not about whether women can win elections, but about whether they can raise the money necessary to run a campaign.
“We have a mentality of voting for the individual even over party,” said Nichols, senior political consultant for Arizona List, which works to get pro-choice, Democratic women elected. “It’s the storyline of the person running.”
That was echoed by two women lawmakers who said that while it’s great to have other women in office, but more important that they can do the job.
“To me there are good and bad male legislators and good and bad female legislators,” said Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Glendale.
Lesko doesn’t think a person’s sex determines whether they are a good legislator, but she said she would like to see more Republican women leaders.
Rep. Victoria Steele, D-Tucson, said that what women bring to politics is about their experiences, not their gender.
“For whatever reason that more women are getting elected in Arizona, I think it’s a good thing,” Steele said.
“I think it’s a good thing because we bring this different perspective based on our experience. Not on our gender, but based on our experience and how we are socialized,” she said.
While Arizona rates well on the state level, it has a poor record when it comes to sending women back East. The state has only sent five women to Congress, and two of them are there now: Democratic Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick of Flagstaff and Kyrsten Sinema of Phoenix.
Marni Allen, director of Political Parity, said in an email that the obstacles to getting elected to federal office include fundraising, exposing personal lives and receiving little party support,
She also said a “governing structure in Washington that seems to be filled with ‘angry, white men,’ means many women who have been successful in politics at a more local level don’t perceive the step up as a desirable career move.”
The lack of women in Arizona’s congressional delegation is tied in part to a lack of term limits in Congress, said Kelly Dittmar, assistant research professor at the Center for American Women and Politics.
“I think that’s definitely an additional hurdle for women in trying to run for congressional office,” Dittmar said of the advantage incumbents hold.
Kim Owens, executive director at Dodie Londen, said Arizona’s history of electing women shows the open-mindedness of the voters.
“There’s no one profile of what an Arizona voter is looking for,” Owens said. “They truly do look at each candidate.
“In the races where we’ve been fortunate enough to have women elected in leadership, it’s been because the voters saw them as the best person for the job and historically, those women have been re-elected in large numbers,” she said.
Nichols brought that voter independence back to the wild west.
“We have this wild west mentality of the independent person who can make up their own mind and it doesn’t really matter if they’re Republican or Democrat, there’s a desire to have a leader that’s not going to be swayed,” Nichols said.