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A new fight for Drexel’s Lynn Yeakel, almost PA’s first woman in the U.S. Senate

Trump’s victory could spur more women running for office in the next two major elections.

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On a well-shaded Drexel satellite campus where Philly begins to feel like the suburbs, the movement to get more women involved in politics is in full swing. In fact, for Lynn Yeakel and her team, the deadline is approaching.

Yeakel was ahead of her time when she ran for U.S. Senate 25 years ago and nearly toppled the famed Arlen Specter. Now, as civic engagement picks up in the Trump era, she’s ahead of her time in promoting the goal of equal leadership roles for women in the United States. She formed Vision 2020 at the Drexel Institute for Women’s Health and Leadership back in 2010, creating a network that has given more visibility to the women’s equality movement and connected women’s political and business organizations in every state. By the year in the group’s name, the 100th anniversary of when the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote, they aim to bring women’s turnout and representation in office to new highs.

As the year draws closer it’s coping with what’s been a curse and a gift.

Donald Trump’s victory against Hillary Clinton last year in a bruising election kept a woman out of the highest office in the US. But it also got the attention of women, who are expressing interest in campaigning and being part of the political process in ways unseen since back in 1992 when Yeakel was running.

Vision 2020 was a “3 a.m. idea” for Yeakel, something that just popped in her head after Barack Obama was elected president for the first time. Amid all the conversations about race and equality, Yeakel was hearing she felt like there had never been the same emphasis on conversations about gender equality.

Supporters of Yeakel say the work of her and Vision 2020 has made a difference in keeping gender equality in politics and business in the news, long before Clinton’s Democratic nomination for president and will continue to do so after. Vision 2020 connected with delegates and affiliates in all 50 states, allowing other groups supporting women to network and grow.

Their goals were and are ambitious. Leadership between women and men in business and government shared 50-50, and 100 percent of registered women voting by 2020.

Yeakel fully admits the 50-50 goal won’t happen but adds the the campaign can last for as long as it takes. The 100 percent voting goal is another longshot, but Yeakel notes women already outnumber men at the polls and are trending upwards.

“It’s a laudatory goal. It’s an important goal,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers. “Whether they meet that number goal or not I don’t know if that’s just as important and having them play a bigger role and (encourage) voting at really high levels.”

There are few women better suited for increasing hands-on involvement for women in politics than Yeakel. In 1991, she was working as the CEO of Women’s Way, the first women’s fundraising coalition in the US, when she decided to run for Senator. She had ties to several politically-involved organizations and individuals from her work but was mostly anonymous to the public. She said polls showed her with 1 percent name recognition in January 1992.

Yeakel kept running anyway. The questioning of Anita Hill had inspired her.

In 1991, with Clarence Hill awaiting appointment as Supreme Court Justice, Hill accused him of sexual harassment and faced a Senate hearing in which a panel entirely of men grilled her. Among those men was Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter. Specter told reporters beforehand Americans would see a “flat-out demolition of her credibility.” And during the hearing, he accused her of “flat-out perjury” and asked several leading, accusatory questions. A fellow panelist told Specter “to let the witness speak in her own words rather than have words put in her mouth.”

“What I decided was if there was no other woman that was going to challenge Arlen Specter, who had been the main inquisitor, then I would have to do it,” Yeakel said. “I looked at it that way — that I would have to do it.”

Yeakel tapped into her connections and collected several big donations, in addition to capitalizing on a grassroots effort based on other Pennsylvanians who had been offended by the Hill hearing and wanted to see her succeed. She ran with an ad showing a clip of Hill and Specter and then asked, “Did this make you as angry as it made me?”

By November, she had gone from no-name to a force, at times polling ahead of Specter. He ended up winning with 49 percent of the vote, compared to her 47. Had the election been held a couple weeks later, Yeakel said she likely would’ve won. But the head start Specter’s name and TV advantage had afforded him was too great.

That election cycle became known as The Year of the Woman. Four women senators and 19 house members were elected, bringing the total from two to six and 28 to 47, respectively.

Trump’s victory has created a similar atmosphere. The Pennsylvania Center for Women & Politics holds annual Ready to Run classes on teaching women to run for office in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The Philadelphia one usually attracts around 75 participants. This year 127 women came, seven more than the room is supposed to hold. In Pittsburgh, turnout at the event doubled from 80 to 170.

“Rarely can we say there’s a direct cause,” said Dana Brown, executive director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women & Politics, “but it seems pretty clear to us there was a bit of a Trump bump. It was not what we expected. We thought there might actually be a chilling effect for women’s interest in politics.”

The Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers held its own Ready to Run event and had to move to a larger venue to accommodate the entrants. New Jersey was one of two states, along with Virginia, holding a state legislative election this year. It saw a record number of women win primary elections in the state Senate and state House.

Pennsylvania government in particular is in need of more women leaders. There are many ratings that examine the share of women leadership in politics for each state and by all of them we’re failing. We rank 39th nationally in state legislature gender equality, with the General Assembly comprised of 18 percent women. The Gender Parity Index, which looks at political leadership at the local, state legislative, state executive and federal level, grades the majority of states with a D. But Pennsylvania is even worse. It’s one of four states that earns an F.

Brown cautions that Pennsylvania might not see an immediate influx of women entering races, even with signs of participation increasing. She said the parties on boths sides are too entrenched, and many seats won’t be competitive.

Another reason why 1992 became the Year of the Woman was an unusual number of seats up for grabs due to retirements and scandals. The same is unlikely for 2018.

“In some ways it was the year of the open seat,” Walsh said. “Preparedness met opportunity. Those women were there. It’s critical we have women running for state legislatures and the elections that  happened every single year, so that when the opportunities come along women are positioned to run for those seats.”

That suits Yeakel. She has been playing the long game for some time and, after Trump, believes the goals of Vision 2020 are closer than they’ve been.

“The outcome of that election might’ve made it more possible,” she said. “It might’ve gotten more people to realize the importance of their vote.”