NEW YORK – The sexting scandal that forced New York Rep. Anthony Weiner from Congress last week capped a remarkable season of dishonor for male politicians — from former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards' indictment on federal campaign finance charges related to hiding a mistress to former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's admission he'd fathered a child with the family maid.
For advocates of women in politics, such sexual shenanigans raise two questions: Why don't women lawmakers fall prey to such temptation? And if more women were elected to office, would political sex scandals disappear?
It's the latest source of frustration for many activists concerned about the lack of progress for women in the political sphere, even as they've begun to outpace men in fields like academia, medicine and law.
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said women lawmakers have demonstrated an ability to focus on their responsibilities in office and not succumb to distractions — sexual and otherwise — that sometimes ensnare their male colleagues.
"We know that women have fewer sex scandals. And voters, particularly women voters, perceive them as being less prone to those kinds of scandals and more likely to be problem solvers with the right priorities," Lake said.
But even as voters warm to women's style of leadership, the number of women running for and winning public office has slowed after four decades of gradual gains.
The number of women in Congress has plateaued since 2007, with just 17 women in the 100-member Senate and 72 in the 435-member House currently. In state legislatures nationwide, 1,738 lawmakers are women, compared to 1,809 last year, and the percentage of women holding statewide office has fallen from 27.6 percent in 2001 to 21.9% today. Just 6 states have women governors.
So while 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin may make headlines by testing the presidential waters — another woman, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachman, has already joined the 2012 GOP primary field — fewer women are running for lower-tier offices.
Recruiting women to run for office has become a top priority for New York Democrat Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who hosted a panel discussion earlier this month titled "Getting Women Off the Sidelines" to encourage more women to participate in politics. The event for several hundred women doubled as a fundraiser for Gillibrand's political committee.
Gillibrand said she was alarmed by the lack of progress for women in politics and has drawn attention — and complaint from some activists — by declaring "the women's movement has stalled." Women need to be in positions of power to bring about real change, she said.
"Politics is seen as a very aggressive industry dominated by mudslinging and competitive behavior, and women self-select themselves out because of that," Gillibrand said. "But if women run, they can win. They'll change the rhetoric and bring a different working style to the table."
Gillibrand was an early booster of Kathy Hochul, a Democrat who bucked the odds to win a special election last month to replace Republican Rep. Chris Lee in a conservative district in upstate New York. Lee was another sex scandal casualty who resigned in February after racy photos he sent to a woman he flirted with on Craigslist surfaced online.
Some advocates bluntly cite such sexual transgressions as evidence that more women need to run for office.
One of those is former Michigan Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who raised eyebrows last month commenting on Schwarzenegger's indiscretions. "Another guy guv admits 2 cheating on his wife. Maybe we need more women governors," she wrote on her Twitter feed.
In an interview, Granholm said the propensity of some male officeholders for bad behavior was only a small part of her quest to get more women to run. She said women succeed in office in part because they bring many "traditionally female" qualities to the job like a willingness to build consensus and seek solutions rather than fights.
But, she said, the lack of temptation helps, too.
"Men in power get a lot more attention from the opposite sex than women do. The temptation of that, the flattery, the ego is more pervasive as a result," Granholm told the AP. "Women in office typically don't have men coming onto us. We're so busy trying to get the family together, multitasking and getting the job done."
The 2012 election year offers a great opportunity for women to run for office, according to Debbie Walsh of the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University. With the congressional and state legislative boundaries being reshaped nationwide as a result redistricting based on the 2010 census, some older legislators are likely to retire and new seats will open up
"We are really trying to say to women, get out there. It's a post-redistricting year, everything gets shaken up, state legislative races get redrawn," Walsh said. "If we don't get more women to run in a year like this, the chances of any gains in the next few years are pretty minimal."