Are you tired of puff pieces about women running for public office that barely scratch the surface of the issue before declaring 2020 to be the next “Year of the Woman,” (Again? Didn’t we just have one? I’m still waiting on my equal pay and bodily autonomy.)
Do you give cable-news pundits some serious side-eye when they unironically proclaim that women are the largest voting block in the United States while simultaneously questioning the electability of female candidates?
Are you exhausted from repeatedly having the same debate about whether we should focus on electing more women or just focus on electing more Democrats period? Obviously, the right answer is “We don’t have to choose; we can do both!” But is that actually true in Trump’s America?
And are you frustrated with discussions about “women in politics” that falsely assume that all women face the same challenges and obstacles?
Well, you’re in the right place. Welcome to “That’s What Girls Do,” an Arkansas Times special series on women in Arkansas politics. Our name was inspired by Elizabeth Warren’s famous pinky-promise to the young girls she meets on the campaign trail. She tells them, “My name is Elizabeth Warren, and I’m running for president because that’s what girls do.” Here at the Times, we think it should be what Arkansas girls do, too. So we launched this series to start a meaningful conversation in Arkansas about empowering women of all ages to participate at every level of the political process.
Some bad news: Arkansas isn’t doing so well when it comes to women’s political participation. Women make up approximately 51 percent of the population of the state of Arkansas, and we make up a majority of both registered voters and voters who actually turn out on Election Day, but we aren’t anywhere near parity when it comes to who is running for or holding public office. According to data gathered by the organization Gender Watch 2018, only 15 percent of all congressional candidates and approximately one quarter of all candidates for statewide offices in the last election cycle were female. Of those, only two won: Republicans Leslie Rutledge (attorney general) and Andrea Lea (auditor).
A review of all the constitutional officers and members of Congress and the U.S. Senate that Arkansas has elected over the past 40 years reveals that only 10 out of 69 of those elected officials — or less than 15 percent — have been women. Right now, none of our congressional delegation is female, and no woman has ever served as Arkansas governor. In fact, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research ranked Arkansas 47th in the nation for political participation among women. The IWPR assigned Arkansas a letter grade of “F” after considering factors like women’s voter registration and turnout, the percentage of women in elected office and women’s access to institutional resources. The numbers are even more discouraging for women who aren’t straight and white. Arkansas has never elected a woman of color, an openly transgender woman, or an openly gay woman to any state constitutional office, Congress or U.S. Senate. There are only 33 women among the Arkansas General Assembly’s 135 total members and only six of those are black. There is one openly gay woman. There has never been an openly transgender woman. We can do a whole lot better.
Given Arkansas’s poor score regarding political participation by women, it isn’t surprising that the state also scored very low in other measures of women’s well-being. Arkansas was ranked as the worst state in the country by the IWPR for women’s employment and earnings. We also took the dubious distinction of worst in the nation for women’s health. And when it comes to poverty, educational opportunity, reproductive rights and women’s general well-being, Arkansas received a grade of D or below and was ranked in the bottom five states in the nation in all categories.
And it is not just women who suffer. Arkansas recently ranked next to the bottom in Gallup’s National Health and Well-Being Index, which evaluates numerous factors that impact all Arkansas residents, including men and children.
So, just to recap, Arkansas women are grossly underrepresented in the halls of government, and I believe as a result, Arkansans are worse off when it comes to most measurable indicators of success and well-being than our neighbors in states where more women serve in public office. Now that we can at least agree that there’s a problem, let’s talk about solutions.
While there is a robust debate to be had over whether “identity politics” is a healthy and productive means by which voters should choose the candidates they will support, asking individual voters to change how they feel about individual candidates is arguably an ineffective (or at least very slow) way of increasing women’s representation in Arkansas politics. Instead, this series is premised on the belief that we can change the trajectory of Arkansas politics if we 1) Identify and then actively work to remedy structural and institutional barriers that keep women from participating, 2) Intentionally foster a cultural understanding that women are effective leaders, and 3) Build a political infrastructure that encourages and supports women who want to run. Easy, right?
Making progress on a problem as complex and entrenched as this will require all of us. Our hope for this special series is that it will serve as a platform for a diverse group of voices that will help our readers think about this issue from all angles. Race, religion, socioeconomic status, gender identity, sexual orientation, party affiliation and the intersectionality of all these different parts of who we are must be included in how we approach any effort to empower women in politics since women are not a monolith and what empowers some may actually harm others. So, in the coming weeks, we will be bringing you a series of pieces by guest authors to explore various facets of this complex issue. We will be reflecting on our own personal experiences, parsing the data, speaking to women who have run, highlighting local groups and organizations already doing this work in Arkansas, and examining what other states are doing that Arkansas could emulate.
And then we are going to ask you to help, whether you volunteer, canvass, donate, train candidates, start a PAC, or run for public office, we simply want you to get involved in shaping Arkansas’s future. Because that’s what girls do.