DES MOINES, Iowa – Iowa (search), a hotbed for politics, is unfriendly terrain for female candidates (search).
The state that holds the nation's first presidential caucus stands as one of just two — Mississippi is the other — never to have elected a woman governor or sent a woman to Congress.
It's a statistic that puzzles political observers — and one that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (search), D-N.Y., considered a front-runner for her party's nomination in 2008, or any woman seeking the presidency can't ignore.
"I have no answers," said Des Moines lawyer Roxanne Conlin, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1982. "It's certainly distressing and embarrassing — quite embarrassing."
Iowa's record on female candidates has never been tested by presidential politics. Although they campaigned in the state, Colorado Rep. Pat Schroeder in 1988, Elizabeth Dole in 2000 and Carol Moseley Braun in 2004 quit before Iowans caucused in the opening nominating contests of their campaigns.
Since 1920, when women gained the right to vote, only 11 women have won statewide election in Iowa. All told, 21 states have elected women as governors, and eight states have a woman in the statehouse today.
"It's very weird because Iowa is a state with so many amazing women," said Debbie Walsh, who runs the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute.
Among the possible explanations is Iowa's predominantly senior population and their deeply held views on the role of women as well as the tendency for urban areas to elect more women than rural states.
Iowa ranks fourth in the nation in the percentage of its population 65 and older and is heavily rural. The city of Des Moines is the state's largest, with close to 200,000 residents.
Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for the Study of Women in Politics at Iowa State University, said surveys "show that older women tend to be less supportive of other women than younger women."
Some analysts point to the state's farming history, where women and men have performed gender-specific tasks — men tilling the fields, women at the homestead tending to their poultry, gardens and canning.
"That is a deeply ingrained societal view of the culture and the view of women," said Bonnie Campbell, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in 1994.
When she tracked her polling as that election played out, Campbell found that Iowans just couldn't see her or another woman as their state's leader.
"I was either ahead or even right up until mid-September or maybe October. Our polling began to show that people liked me, thought I was smart enough, didn't disagree with me on a lot of issues, but when the pollster asked the question, 'Who do you think would be better qualified to lead Iowa?' it just fell off," she said.
That attitude was also evident to Ann Hutchinson, the former Bettendorf mayor who unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, in the last election.
"There are barriers in attitudes, particularly among women," Hutchinson said. "Why is it that women don't want other women to succeed?"
Iowa women have had only limited political success. Joy Corning served two terms as lieutenant governor, but her bid for the Republican gubernatorial nomination never took off and she dropped out of the race.
"I had never felt I was discriminated against because I was a woman. But, you know, there may have been some subtle things that I missed," Corning said. "I don't know the answer."
Others cited the strong tendency among Iowans to retain politicians, especially if there have never been any major missteps.
"One of the things that's been different about the circumstances in Iowa is we've been prone to re-elect our incumbents," said Lt. Gov. Sally Pederson, who also heads the Iowa Democratic Party.
The last sitting governor to be defeated was in 1962.
There's considerable frustration among activists. Campbell noted that Florida has an older population yet little hesitation sending women to Congress. Nebraska and Kansas are rural, too, but have had female governors.
"There have been women elected in far more conservative states than Iowa," Campbell said. "It is a bit of a perplexing question."
"It may be the candidates," Conlin said. "It may be the right woman has not come along."
Conlin stubbornly holds out hope, but she says she isn't running again.
"It's hard for me because I love Iowa. I love Iowans. I love everything about them — for the most part," she said. "In some ways we are progressive, but we are also a very traditional state."