This essay by Stephanie Malone, a former state legislator from Fort Smith, is part of the Times’ ongoing series on women in Arkansas politics “That’s What Girls Do.”
“Excuse me representative, your daughter isn’t allowed to sit at the committee table.”
I will never forget hearing that sentence only two weekends into my first term in the Arkansas legislature, and realizing they meant me, mistaking me as the daughter — rather than the colleague — of another state representative. I should point out that I would absolutely love to hear that line again these days. I remember it for several reasons. First, while yes, I was young when I was elected (29), I wasn’t the youngest that year. Second, I should point out that I am a conservative Republican, so in 2009, I was an EXTREME rarity roaming the marble halls. A couple of the guys sworn in that year were younger — and one by several years — yet I’d be willing to bet they never had to deal with anything like that.
When I was approached about writing this article about being a single, female, elected official, I wasn’t really sure at first — partly because I haven’t written in a long time, and also because I wasn’t sure what parts of my story I wanted to tell. After giving it some thought, I have decided the one thing about my story, and something that I hope my nieces, as well as younger girls across the state will take away is that, yes, you, a single, young female in a rural Southern state can put your career first, and it’s OK!! In fact — the sky is the limit!
So how did a single, 29-year-old female — not a normal demographic in Arkansas at the time — decide to run for office? Pretty simple — I got asked. My boss at the time was active in Republican politics and thought it might be a good idea for me to try it out for two reasons: 1) I had been active in the Fort Smith community working for the chamber of commerce for a number of years; and 2) I am part Boozman. My uncles are U.S. Sen. John Boozman and the late Fay Boozman, former state senator and state Health Director until his death.
I guess some would say I am from a political family, but that didn’t make my decision, or my campaign, easy by any means. I knew if I was going to do this, I really wanted to it on my own without family connections.
I decided I would run, and we were off to the races! I got a handful of friends and my parents and we set out knocking on the doors of District 64 (now District 77). For the record, I had a race every single time. I envy those who never had a primary or even an opponent in the general, but that was never the case for me. After months of hard work talking to voters, I won my primary and then my general in 2008.
Navigating the waters when I got down to Little Rock was different for sure, but I felt very lucky that Republicans were a caucus of 28, and the freshmen in the caucus were stacked with talent. Many members are now in the Senate; one member was the first Republican speaker of the House, and one now holds a constitutional office. With a stacked roster in my freshman group, I looked to all of them for guidance and was grateful for all the help I received.
My second term is the one I would personally consider as the turning point in my growth as a person and a politician. Getting to the second term, though, took a hard-fought election that left an impression on me that I still feel to this day. My opponent was a well-established gentleman who decided to use the fact that as I was single female against me: suggesting I couldn’t possibly be capable of holding office simply because I was single — like it’s a disease — oh, and because I was “a girl.” Did being a woman make my race more difficult? Probably. Not sure my male counterpart ever had to hear a constituent tell him to his face, “You’re not as pretty in person.” To this day, I can still tell you the exact [moment] that incident happened. It left an impression I’d rather forget. I have several more stories like this but I want to keep this family friendly so I will save that for another time.
But being a woman did not keep me from winning (again and again)! All the things my opponent said and did made me more determined than ever to win and to prove I was more than capable of holding onto my seat. I posted a sizable win in my re-election campaign — and did the same thing two years later when challenged again.
In the six years I spent in office, this single female was the second youngest woman ever elected and went on to be one of the few Republicans in House leadership to hold a chairmanship in a Democratic-dominated legislature. I was also appointed as a president pro temp — and appointed to the House Select Committee — making me one of the highest-ranking Republicans of that session. My third term, I came back to be the second female to chair the House Select Committee on Rules. This single female was also the first female to address the General Assembly from the well of the Old State House.
When I first got to Little Rock, there were so many different caucuses and groups that met on a regular basis to discuss different topics that would be affected during the session. One of the caucuses was the Women’s Legislative Caucus. My two terms the caucus seemed to meet more regularly, but by my third term it had fizzled out. I still managed to forge some amazing friendships with the women I served with — one of my closest friendships is with a woman I served with, who could not be more opposite of me politically. But we have been able to accept that and maintain a great friendship. I also have maintained a close relationship with a couple of other ladies I served with. I don’t know if it is because of our personalities that we have stayed in contact or that we all love politics, but I do know there is a bond over having been women serving together in a male-dominated field that did help connect us as friends. And I am grateful for the friendships.
As I reflect on my journey, I am more aware now of women in office and the need for all different types of women who can offer insight on a variety of topics that our male counterparts can’t really identify with — even though some like to think they know and understand, they don’t. In recent years, women have been the face of some big movements at the Capitol: #ARGIRLSLEAD and the Dream B.I.G. Campaign, for example, and they’re not slowing down. No matter what party you are in, women-led movements like these should help inspire and encourage you to run and know there are more women out there who have already taken that leap and are helping to pave the way for even bigger steps.
I mentioned my nieces in the beginning of this essay. They are young now, but I hope that one day when they are older, they will understand their Duchess (their adorable nickname for me) stepped out of her comfort zone and laid a few stones in what is sure to be an impeccably laid pathway (because women are designing) to even bigger success in Arkansas politics.
Stephanie Malone is a former Republican state representative from Fort Smith who served in the House of Representatives from 2009-2015. She is currently the director of governmental affairs at Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.