Women candidates to make inroads in Congress

(CBS News) WASHINGTON - Election Day is just under seven months away. At a White House forum on women and the economy Friday, President Obama suggested more women are needed at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue on Capitol Hill.

"Fewer than 20 percent of the seats in Congress are occupied by women," he said. "Is it possible that Congress would get more done if there were more women in Congress? Is that fair to say?"

Low as the percentage cited by Mr. Obama may be, it still marks an increase over generations past, and there is hope that this fall's election may give those numbers a boost. CBS News correspondent Nancy Cordes looks into this.

New Hampshire Senator Jean Shaheen spent 15 years working on other people's campaigns before finally launching one of her own.

Video: Obama seeks to widen gender gap with GOP
Amid perceived advantage, Obama touts pro-women message

"I just decided that all the men I had been working for hadn't been getting it right," she said.

Shaheen is now the only woman in history to serve as both a governor and a senator.

"As women, we have different experiences than men. They're not better, they're not worse, but they're different. And we bring those experiences to whatever we do. "

Women make up just 17 percent of the U.S. Senate and 17 percent of the House.

"Family responsibilities, a lack of political recruitment and the notion that they don't think they're qualified to run for office have traditionally hindered women's candidate emergence, " said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women's Policy Institute at American University.

She also said self-image is also an issue.

"Despite the fact that on paper the women and men that we surveyed and interviewed look exactly the same and have the same credentials -- about 60 percent of the men compared to only 40 percent of women self-assessed as being qualified to run for office."

Republican Martha Zoller waited until her kids were grown before she ran for Georgia's 9th congressional district.

"I've had people suggesting to me that I should run for office for years," she said. "But I never really took it seriously until I was an empty-nester."

Zoller said more conservative women need to put their names on the ballot. In the last 20 years, her party has nominated about half as many women for Congress as have the Democrats.

"When the president's just dealt with this issue on whether contraception should be covered and who should be paid for," she said. "I didn't see any conservative women really getting out there and talking about this issue -- although there are plenty of them that could have. I think it's time that women get involved in politics and to step up there

In the history of the U.S. Congress, only 2 percent of its members have been women. But with anti-incumbent fever still rampant, being seen as a political outsider might actually give female candidates an edge come November.

On a side note, according to the U.N., the United States ranks 71st in the world for the number of women in the legislature -- behind nations like Vietnam and Kazakhstan. Rwanda ranks number one.

  • Nancy Cordes On Twitter»

    Nancy Cordes is CBS News' congressional correspondent.

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