When the New Jersey legislature convenes in January, women will hold top leadership positions in both the Senate and Assembly. Assemblywoman Sheila Y. Oliver will become Speaker and Senator Barbara Buono will be the first woman to serve as Senate Majority Leader in the state. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, this will make New Jersey one of only a handful of states where women serve in top legislative leadership slots.
Until recently, New Jersey ranked poorly in the number of elected female officials representing the state. From 1985 to 2005, the numbers were abysmal. When compared to other states, New Jersey ranked in the bottom percentile, with women making up only about ten to twelve percent of the state Legislature. Yet beginning in 2005, the situation gradually improved. In January 2010, women will make up 28 percent of the Legislature’s 120 members. At that time, there will be 26 women in the New Jersey Assembly and eight in the Senate, ranking the state as 15th highest in the percentage of women in the Legislature.
Despite improvements in the number of women in the Legislature, women have held few other high elected positions during the state’s history. Only one woman, Christine Todd Whitman, has served as governor; no women have been elected to the U.S. Senate from New Jersey; and only five women have made it to the U.S. House of Representatives from the state. And since Margaret Roukema retired from the U.S. House of Representatives in 2002, the state’s 13 House seats have been held by men only.
New Jersey’s political infrastructure doesn’t help. When it comes to deciding who will run for legislative seats – and providing the money to do so – the county chairs of each party hold the most power. Women occupy only four of those 42 seats: Ailish Hambel (R-Sussex), Alice Furia (D-Burlington), Lois Zarish (D- Hunterdon), and Peg Schaffer (D- Somerset).
Ingrid Reed, Director of the New Jersey Project at the Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University believes there are many reason why we need women in public positions. She believes that society needs their talent and they make a difference.
Indeed, a report by the Eagleton Institute’s Center for American Women and Politics showed that female legislative leaders have different priorities than their male counterparts. Women legislators of both parties are more likely to support liberal or more moderate positions on issues such as hate crimes and racial prejudice in job hiring and are more likely than male legislators of either party to work on legislation specifically intended to benefit women.
So what can be done to increase the numbers? Reed suggests introducing women role models and policy makers to high school and college-age students to encourage their involvement in politics. In addition, she believes there should be more opportunities for women to get information, training and support for running for office.
There are many studies that show that having more women involved in the electoral process makes a difference in the public policy debate. While New Jersey has made strides in this area, it will be a greater benefit if more women are elected to office.