February 06, 2018

Lawyers discuss challenges and rewards of women in politics at Midyear Meeting

As a woman, have you ever contemplated working on a political campaign or going into politics yourself?

Lawyers from the United States joined with their Canadian counterparts to hear from

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and former British Columbia Justice Minister and Attorney General Suzanne Anton discuss the rewards and challenges of working in the political arena, the skills needed to navigate the transition into politics, and the importance of women serving in political office. They participated on a panel titled, “Challenges and Rewards for Women in Politics — Both Personal and Professional,” at the National Conference of Women’s Bar Associations luncheon during the Midyear Meeting on Feb. 2 in Vancouver.

Ellen Rosenblum, Oregon Attorney General (left) and Suzanne Anton, QC, former British Columbia Justice Minister and Attorney General (right) address the program "Challenges and Rewards for Women in Politics" at the ABA Midyear Meeting in Vancouver. (photo credit: The Canadian Press Images/Michael Desjardins)

The U.S. is ranked 104 in the world for women in government; British Columbia is 50.

Women hold 22 percent of 100 seats in the U.S. Senate and 19.3 percent of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives.

“These numbers indicated that women were less likely to run for office, were less likely to underestimate their qualifications, were more likely to see campaigns as more difficult, were less likely to encourage each other to run for office, and didn’t think highly enough of themselves to run for office,” said panel moderator Jeanne Marie Clavere, who serves on the board of the National Conference of Women’s Bar Association.

However, she said that this past year has become a defining time for women in politics. In 2017, 26,000 women considered running for political office compared to the 900 women who ran for office in 2016.

Preliminary numbers for the 2018 elections show 66 women have announced their candidacy or shown interest in running for governor, according to data from the Center for Women in Politics.  This is more than the number of women who ran during the 2010 and 2014 elections combined. 

British Columbia is seeing a similar increase in the number of women running for political office.

“Thirty-nine percent of elected officials in British Columbia are women and there are some very significant women in positions,” said Anton. “It’s important for women to run and to also support women candidates around you who are running for election. You can help other women.”

Anton was drawn to politics at age 50, after having worked a full career as a math teacher and prosecutor, both of which she said. “Provided her good training, a thick skin, the ability to learn how people work and the issues most important to them.”

In her high-profile role, Anton provided legal counsel to the government, advised on the conduct of government litigation and the administration of criminal justice and prosecution, and ensured the government conducted its affairs in accordance with the law.

“I never thought I would be a politician. The thought never crossed my mind,” she said.

Her career in politics began in her community, where Anton was president of her children’s youth soccer club. She was passionate about developing programs in communities, where children did not have as many opportunities to participate in sports.

Anton moved up through local politics and was elected as a member in the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia. She was later appointed attorney general and minister of justice and held that position until 2017.

Anton said it’s important to look out for other women, especially in politics. “Politics is a tough business,” she said. “It’s highly intensive, especially when you are in a political campaign, which can also lead to problems.”

But, she added, “It can also be highly rewarding.”

In 2012, Ellen Rosenblum was appointed by the Gov. John Kitzhaber to complete the term of her predecessor. She was elected attorney general in the fall of that year and was re-elected to a second term in 2016.

Rosenblum, the first woman to serve as Oregon’s attorney general, said the number of women running for office is no small achievement in comparison to the state of women in politics. Rosenblum served as a trial lawyer for 16 years.

Rosenblum said she found her passion for consumer protection during her time in law school. She said, “Women should run for office because the political environment needs more of them.”  “I have always wanted to be a judge and quickly found the positions I worked in were political and required politics.

“I had already been a politician of a different sort, nonpartisan, and the ability to talk about positions on issues that you care about such as the administration of justice and our communities,” said Rosenblum. “Some people fear fundraising and speaking out on issues but these are the issues I enjoy.”

Anton said her supportive and strong connections helped her but she was adamant, “Politics is a tough, tough business.”

“That is why women, especially lawyers are great for politics because women are quick in becoming tough,” she said. “Lawyers make good politicians. In fact, there is a cliché that there are way too many lawyers in politics but it’s simply not true. There are not enough lawyers in politics.

“We need more lawyers in politics,” Anton continued. “Because lawyers have a number of attributes --- good training, a good study of the law, a good ability to communicate with people, a fairly thick skin, and a very good understanding of the public.” 

Rosenblum said she was surprised by how intensely political the environment was and that women will not always support you.

“It’s obvious, sexism is still alive and well. Although she defeated her male counterpart handily in her last election, Rosenblum said she did not get the newspaper endorsements. She said the media had difficulty separating her qualifications from her opponent and felt she did not have management experience.

“Apparently, I had been a judge, and from their (media) perspective, judges do not have management experience,” Rosenblum said. “As a judge, how could I not have management experience?”

Rosenblum is encouraging and supporting other women in Oregon to run for state attorney general. She said: “What we need to keep in mind is that we need women running for office, women judges, women AGs. We need women in other positions of power including serving on editorial boards.”

Rosenblum spoke of two former state attorneys general, who are now serving in the U.S. Senate: Kamela Harris of California and Catherine Cortez Masto of Arizona.

“These women are successful because they have qualifications and have secured great working relationships,” said Rosenblum. “It shows there are opportunities available for women to obtain powerful positions in political office. If you are serving as a district attorney, then you have those credentials.”

The luncheon panel was sponsored by the Canadian Bar Association British Columbia, Women Lawyers Forum and the National Conference of Women’s Bar Associations. The event was co-sponsored by the American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession.