Iowa women, U.S. politics: Why Iowa has never elected a female to Congress or as governor

Thaddeus Mast

Iowa has never elected a woman to Congress or as a governor, a title we share with only Mississippi. Some might wonder if there is something about Iowa that causes this.

Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman-Catt Center, said there are many reasons but one is more prominent than the others.

“The women who have been running by and large for governor and congressional seats have been running as challengers. Overall and on average, incumbents, whether they be male or female, win over 90 percent of the time, with challengers on average only winning about 15 percent of the time,” Bystrom said. “The best situation for a woman to get elected to office is to run in an open seat race, where women have actually more than a 50 percent chance, on average, of winning.”

Only two women have not run against a sitting official, called an open seat race. Roxanne Conlin ran an open race against Terry Branstad in 1982 for governor, according to the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics. Joyce Schulte ran against Steve King.

There are many other reasons Iowa has not elected a woman to these upper offices, as Ellen Pirro, lecturer of political science, explained.

“The Iowa population is aging, and older voters are very much against women in politics,” Pirro said. “I had a student tell me Friday that his 80-year-old grandmother said: ‘No woman ought to be running. They ought to be home taking care of their husbands.’ And that’s the attitude of many of the older Americans.”

Bystrom agred, saying: “The thing that works against us the most is that we have more of a stagnant, older population that is not dynamic and is not significantly growing.”

“I think the second reason is that we have a lot of religious fundamentalists in the state, and they are intent to be opposed to women in public office,” Pirro said.

These are a few of the ways culture towards women is measured, according to Bystrom. When looking at a state that is more friendly towards electing women, “they tend to have changing, growing, dynamic populations with a lot of young people and minorities. They tend to be more moderate to liberal in their ideological views, and they tend to be less fundamentally Christian than other states,” Bystrom said.

Iowa could see an end to this trend, with Christie Vilsack running against Steve King in the 4th district. Bystrom believes that Vilsack has a good chance of winning.

“If you can’t have an open seat race, then the next best available option is to run in a year after redistricting,” Bystrom said, which is exactly what Vilsack is doing. She has also raised more money than all of King’s previous challengers combined.

Pirro, however, does not see Vilsack winning, and the polls agree with her.

“We see him leading in a district that has a significant number of religious fundamentalists,” she said.

The lack of women in major political positions is mirrored by the economic and business positions.

“I think it has an impact in a lot of places, because the attitude towards women goes into other areas,” Pirro said. “You find a glass ceiling prevailing in businesses in Iowa. Very few of the businesses in Iowa have women at the upper levels. I don’t know a single Iowa company that has a major woman CEO.

“The image it portrays is that we’re old fashioned, we’re behind the times, and I think that businesses look at that. … I think sometime one of the major Iowa businesses has got to grit its teeth and make the right choice and say we are promoting a woman. We are putting a woman in charge.”

The closest Iowa has come to electing a woman to one of these higher offices was when Sheila McGuire Riggs ran in 1994. Her close association with President Bill Clinton’s health care plan, however, ruined her chances.

“She was running in an open seat race against Tom Latham, the first time he ran. In all the polling before the race, Sheila McGuire Riggs was leading Tom Latham in every single poll people saw,” Bystrom said. “It was a great race, pretty well funded, she had good name recognition. In the beginning, she was associated with health care in a positive way, but then when health care started generating all of this negative polling like we see Obamacare doing today; it would have been very hard for her to win.”