Political shift leaves more room for women

Female politicians gain prominence throughout Alaska

Posted: Monday, December 04, 2006

WASILLA - When Arliss Sturgulewski became the first female major-party nominee for governor in 1986, the world of Alaska politics was a very different place.

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"There's a lot more kinds of instant communication that was never possible before. That's the biggest difference," Sturgulewski said in an interview from her Anchorage home. "It just shows the explosion we've had in communications."

With the rise of U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and newly elected governor Sarah Palin, prominent female politicians in Alaska have become commonplace. That wasn't the case in 1986, when the idea of a woman leading the state wasn't as accepted as it is today.

"I remember the press following me around once when I went to get my hair done," Sturgulewski said.

As a female candidate, Sturgulewski said she had to fight to make sure voters concentrated on the policy aspect of her campaign, rather than her gender.

Now that two decades have past since her first gubernatorial run (Sturgulewski also ran an unsuccessful campaign in 1990), Sturgulewski says she doesn't think women have to fight as hard now to get noticed.

"It has become more accepted now I think," she said.

After Sturgulewski's political career ended, Democrat Fran Ulmer emerged as the state's most well-known female political figure. In 1994, the former Juneau mayor became the first woman elected lieutenant governor in Alaska. In 2002 Ulmer ran an unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign that may have been hampered not by her gender, but by her ties to outgoing governor Tony Knowles.

"She was perceived as a continuation of the Knowles administration," said Jerry McBeath, a University of Alaska Fairbanks professor and author of several books on Alaska politics and government.

Ulmer left public life after the 2002 campaign and in 2005 become director of the University of Alaska Anchorage's Institute of Social and Economic Research. She declined to comment for this story.

Although women in Alaska politics have been embraced by voters over the past two decades, McBeath said he believes gender may have played a part in Sturgulewski's election losses.

"I suspect it was maybe an issue, with 2 or 3 percent (of voters)," he said.

Gender may have been perceived by Alaska voters as a negative in the past, but Murkowski said she doesn't believe that's the case any longer.

"When Arliss ran, and even to some extent when Fran Ulmer ran, we heard comments that 'We don't think Alaska is ready for a woman governor,"' Murkowski said.

During Palin's campaign, however, voters tended to focus more on the issues, rather than gender, Murkowski said. "I didn't hear that once," she said.

Gender may actually be working in women's favor. Palin, for example, ran on a platform of change in government, a position that likely was highlighted by the fact that she ran against Republican incumbent Frank Murkowski in the Republican primary and Democrat Knowles in the general election.

More important than gender, McBeath said, was Palin's ability to put a fresh face on the Republican Party that voters could identify with.

"Palin consolidated the Republican base," he said. "She ran a real smart campaign."

For her part, Palin doesn't think gender was an issue with voters. Instead, she said her message of change in government and accountability by politicians rang true with her future constituents.

With Palin's election, the state now has a female U.S. senator, governor and state Senate president (Lyda Green, R-Wasilla). Lisa Murkowski said she believes now is the time to encourage more young women to get involved in the political process.

"We have the opportunity to be mentors and role models for young women who want to go into leadership," she said. "That is something that should be encouraged."

And Palin, Murkowski said, is now in a unique position to show young Alaskans - and young women in particular - that they can reach whatever goals they set their minds to.

"She can be that role model for young Alaskans and young women in the state."


Information from: Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, http://www.frontiersman.com

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