The Year of Women Leaders

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Along with the Democratic sweep in Congress came historic firsts for Democratic women in party leadership positions. I interviewed Democratic pollster Celinda Lake today and asked her whether '06 would turn out to be the year of women leaders in American politics, as '92 was the "Year of the Woman." She responded: "I think '06 is the year of the Democratic woman and the year of women in leadership. You have the first woman speaker, which is very exciting. You have the first woman head of the National Governors Association, Governor [Janet] Napolitano from Arizona. You have women in other races taking leadership positions. You have the highest record number of women in the Senate. You have the first woman Supreme Court justice in Alabama elected–and the only Democrat, I might add. You have just recently in the last year the first African-American woman head of the Georgia Supreme Court, so it's really women in the pipeline for a long time emerging into leadership positions, and that's very exciting."

I also asked her why this year? She responded, "It was a good year for women because it was a year of change, and women represent change. It was a year of people feeling we've got to have people come together and get something done and voters believe that women will do that more. It was, term limits kind of decimated the pipeline. We were retiring huge cohorts that had taken 25 years to build up, and we weren't having record numbers of women run, but I think a number of women [became] frustrated by what was going on and so we had a record number of viable women running, particularly for state legislature. And then the pipeline started to fill back up again and you saw these women moving in. So [this year because you had] the change mood, the anticorruption mood, and just a kind of coming-of-age again of women."

Lake also tracked some major changes in the way women voted this November. "Women voted [for] Democratic [candidates] 56 to 43, by 13 [percentage] points. That's at the upper end of the range of women voting Democratic. Unmarried women, 66 percent [of them] voted Democratic, so they always were two-thirds Democratic, but they continue that margin. Eighteen percent of the electorate [was made up of] unmarried women and then among married women, they [voted Republican] by 11 points in 2004, and we're back to splitting that vote in 2006."

Why do Democrats see a 50-50 split of married women as a gain for them? Lake said, "Married women are always more Republican, so splitting is actually good. Married women tend to be more religious; they tend to be less economically marginal because they have two incomes, not one, often. They're more homemakers, and they tend to vote very Republican. … But at least it was back in the range that was competitive."