This guest piece is part of the Times’ ongoing series on women in Arkansas politics called “That’s What Girls Do.”
Running for office is a journey, and historically it’s a more difficult journey for women. While democracy was born thousands of years ago, in a very real sense, women are still pioneers on this frontier.
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Women only got the right to vote 100 years ago, and women only got the right to have a credit card in their own name in the 1970s. I remember buying my first car in the ’70s; my dad had to co-sign for me because I was a girl!
Because it is the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave white women the right to vote, today we are surrounded with celebratory teas, rallies, marches and women asking, “What the f_ _ _k, why are there so few women in elected office?”
There have been trailblazers from the time we got the right to vote, and there have been a lot of powerful women opening doors for the rest of us along the way (Hattie Caraway, Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, Hillary Clinton, you name your favorites). Every time a woman steps up to run for office, more follow. But women only hold about 20 percent of elected offices.
When I decided to run for secretary of state in 2014 — and it was my own decision made without pressure from anyone — I was naive about the difficulties I would face. I had the qualifications: I had served as an election official for both state and county government, and I had held appointments as both a county election and as a State Board of Election Commissioner. I had contacts in every county that made me feel as if I had a chance to defeat an incumbent seeking his second term. Roadblocks began immediately — specifically my ability to raise money and lots of it. I did raise a respectable amount of money, but it wasn’t enough to adequately spread the message of my candidacy and connect with voters. I didn’t win, obviously, but I made a lot of friends and contacts across the state. I believe that my running for office made a difference and gave voters a choice.
So when I ran again for secretary of state in 2018, I had a base. I had connections. I knew the players. I knew the state. But it was still an uphill battle raising the money needed to reach enough people. And, of course, the fact Arkansas is still a red state guaranteed winning would be very difficult. I was not deterred because I was committed to running and winning, and more importantly, because I was committed to making needed changes in voting rights, voting opportunities and voter education once in office. Again, I didn’t win, but I made that race about issues that matter. I brought concerns about obstacles to voting that most people are unaware of into the conversation, and I’m convinced I helped encourage a lot of women to step up and run for office across our state.
Emotionally, running for office takes its toll. It’s lonely, stressful and draining. Many, many people are supporting you, working for you, with you, and expecting you to win. It really can become a strain to keep up a campaign’s pace. No looking back once you launch yourself on this path. You can rest and sleep after Election Day … maybe.
On the campaign trail, I worried, and so I worked. I constantly worried about reaching enough people, so I canvassed … a lot. And my experiences talking to voters made me worry that most people weren’t receiving enough information about the elections nor about the candidates running for office to make rational choices at the ballot box. I was actually told I’d have a better chance of winning if I changed my name to Lady Gaga. Seriously? Is that where we are today?
Interestingly, many other countries REQUIRE a certain number of women to fill parliamentary (legislative) positions. Not so in the good old USA; no quotas needed here. I personally have had the honor to monitor and observe elections in over a dozen countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia over the last 20 years. All of the ones I observed had quotas for women to run for parliamentary seats. If other countries are requiring gender equality in their governing bodies, maybe it is something we should consider here.
Fortunately, today in Arkansas, we have help for women running for office. The Progressive Arkansas Women PAC (PAWPAC) was formed in 2016 specifically to change the political landscape of office holders in Arkansas. In 2018, it placed me at the top of their ticket as a candidate for secretary of state. It also supported 59 progressive women running for office, with a win rate of 30 percent. Many more wins are expected with the 2020 candidates. I spent most of the past summer traveling our state talking with groups about PAWPAC, running for office, what it involves and encouraging women to run.
I have no regrets about running for office. I met so many wonderful Arkansans and saw so many beautiful sights across our state, and I am very proud of what I accomplished. Running for the privilege of serving my state was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever undertaken, and the fact that I wasn’t successful in the end doesn’t change that experience. My goal now is to encourage more women to run. I want them to know that running and losing is not something to fear and is not something they will regret. I don’t want the fear of losing to keep them from running at all.
But more than that, I want them to win.
I want women in Arkansas to bring all their skills, energy and intellect to political participation. I want us to outraise, outwork and outvote everyone who thinks women cannot win. And then, together, I want us to make things better.
Susan Inman was director of elections for a former Arkansas secretary of state and former member of the Arkansas State Board of Election Commissioners. She has volunteered with the U.S. Department of State as an international election observer, observing over a dozen elections in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Caucasus. She was the Democratic nominee for Arkansas Secretary of State in 2014 and 2018.