The story is a legend in Chicago politics and machine politics generally. In the middle of the last century, a young University of Chicago student named Abner Mikv -- later a leading liberal congressman, then a federal judge, then Bill Clinton's White House counsel, and today an adviser to Barack Obama -- wandered off campus to a Democratic ward headquarters, looking to volunteer in an upcoming election.
"Who sent you?" the ward committeeman asked.
"Nobody," said Mikva.
"We don't want nobody nobody sent," the committeeman replied.
Such is the logic of a closed political system, where an outsider becomes an insider only if an insider vouches for hi -- or, even more, for her. And when we look across the nation to ascertain which states have elected the most women to political office and which the least, it turns out that states once (or still) dominated by party machines don't create a political culture in which women can thrive. Where entry into politics depends entirely on who sent you -- on winning the backing of the boy -- women often end up outside the clubhouse, the legislature, and the Congress.
Women, of course, can be outsiders even when the power structure isn't all that structured. Regions of the country where religious traditionalism remains strong also tend to be hostile terrains to women's political advancement. A look at those states with the highest and lowest levels of female elected officials suggests that neither old time religion nor old school politics generates a favorable climate for women aspiring to public office.
The states with the highest percentage of women state legislators in 2008 are, in order, Vermont, New Hampshire, Washington, Colorado, Minnesota, Arizona, Hawaii, Oregon, Maryland, and Maine. The only one of these states to have been home to a classic urban machine is Maryland, where the Baltimore Democratic organization once flourished (and it's no accident that the most politically gifted daughter of that organization -- Nancy Pelosi, whose father and brother both served as Baltimore mayor -- built her own career in a far less traditional and hierarchical city, San Francisco). None of these other states even had a large city in 1900 (large cities in 1900 almost all had machines). Some preserved the traditions of New England small-town direct democracy. Some embraced early 20th-century progressivism, which abolished party patronage and thereby crippled parties as political gatekeepers. And where parties no longer shaped political careers, that function was performed either by self-starting pols or by an array of disparate groups: professional associations, unions, community organizations, ethnic networks, activist clubs -- and, eventually, women's activist organizations. Some of these groups were even less welcoming to women than the machines had been, but some weren't, and the sheer multiplicity of such groups in time created a less daunting (though hardly egalitarian) political culture than that of hegemonic party organizations.
A century later, this helps explain why these states have a higher percentage of women legislators than other states -- such as Massachusetts, which ranks 21st, or New York, which ranks 22n -- that may seem more liberal and egalitarian but where political careers for well over a century were made and broken by party bosses.
The other factor that correlates with a more woman-friendly political culture is the relative weakness of cultural -- chiefly, religious -- traditionalism. The states with the highest percentage of women legislators roughly correspond to those states with the highest percentage of people who, when asked their religion in a 2001 City University of New York survey, answered, "None." Of the top five states with the most women legislators, Vermont ranked second in percentage of no-religion respondents. Colorado ranked fourth, New Hampshire ranked ninth, Washington ranked first. Minnesota was in the middle of the no-religion pack, but if it's not among our most secular states, it is among those with the richest progressive heritages.
Not surprisingly, the states with the lowest percentages of women state legislators are the states of the old South and Appalachia. It's no small irony that the states in which Hillary Clinton has won the greatest share of the white vote in her primary contests against Barack Obama overlaps considerably with the states that elect the fewest women. The state with the lowest percentage of female legislators is South Carolina, followed by Oklahoma, Alabama, Kentucky, West Virginia, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Virginia, and Ohio. In Pennsylvania, one can adduce a series of regional explanations for women's low level of representation: The middle of the state is Appalachian traditionalist, while both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh were home to major political machines.
There are, of course, exceptions to these patterns. Perhaps the most striking is the career of Ella Grasso, who served as the Democratic governor of Connecticut from 1975 until shortly before her death in 1981 and was the first elected woman governor in U.S. history who was not the wife or widow of a previous governor. Grasso was a talented political leader and one of the most successful governors of her time, but at nearly every stage in her long political career, she was championed by the state's legendary political boss, John Bailey, who not only ran the Connecticut Democratic machine for decades but was John F. Kennedy's emissary to all the big-city bosses in the 1960 campaign and was then appointed Democratic National chairman by Kennedy. The machine -- Bailey -- promoted Grasso, but in general, women have done better in places where churches are relatively scarce and machines altogether absent.
Check out the rest of the articles in our package on women in politics:
Beyond Hillary: Strength in Numbers by Ann Friedman
By Invitation Only by Ezra Klein
7 Democratic Women to Watch
Janet Napolitano and the New Third Way by Dana Goldstein