COMMENTARY | “When women run for political office, they win just as often as men,” announced William “Brother” Rogers at the annual Alabama Political Science Association conference in Tuscaloosa, citing research from a Brown University study. Yet not one state in America had female representation equal to half the political offices (Colorado came the closest at 41 percent).
Rogers, the Associate Director of the John C. Stennis Center for Public Service, was the lone male on a panel of female lawmakers and judges from Alabama, a state ranked 47th in women represented in politics.
He, Jacksonville State University Associate Professor Lori Owens and doctoral candidate Laura Sojka from the University of Alabama sought to answer why women win, but rarely run for political office. Their stories were just as applicable for America as they were for Alabama.
All provided examples of people attempting to discourage them from running. GOP State Rep. Mary Sue McClurkin, a Pelham businesswoman, explained what happened when she announced she would run for office. Her father, who loved politics, was pleased. But her mother wasn’t. “Nice women don’t do politics,” she warned her daughter.
McClurkin noted that when she went to the Alabama legislature, it was more like a fraternity. “It is still somewhat that way,” she said. Her nickname in the state is “momma” as she spends much of her time keeping the male legislators in line.
“Without encouragement I wouldn’t be out there today,” admitted Judge Beth Kellum of the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals. “It matters. The time away from family is hard. Women want to be liked. They have to learn to accept defeat. It was hard to run again after I lost the first time. The only truthful person seems to be the one who says they won’t vote for you.”
“When women run, it is for different reasons,” explained State Rep. Patricia Todd, a Birmingham Democrat. “They get involved over an issue or are ticked off about something.” Todd would know. As a lesbian, she was motivated to run for the way the state legislature because of the way gays were treated over the marriage debate in Alabama. “Someone has to change the language up there,” she noted with her friends when deciding to run. It wasn’t about a stepping stone for another job.
“Women don’t feel they can raise money, but look what they do with Girl Scouts, school fundraisers, money for kids’ activities,” pointed out State Sen. Linda Coleman, an African-American Democrat from Birmingham. “Women can multitask. They can do it all.”
Even when they win, women find themselves struggling somewhat. “We had to get a lot of attention to get on the good committees,” Coleman told us.
Todd noted how she had to stand up to her colleagues for attacking a female Republican politician. “How dare you treat her like that,” she scolded her fellow Democrats.
In response to a question I asked about the perception of indecisiveness among women, Kellum roared “Not me!” to the delight of the audience. “Women can’t joke around like men can. They have to be serious.”
“Women tend to look at all sides of the issue,” McClurkin explained. “They like consensus.”
Coleman delighted the audience with an analogy to explain the decisiveness issue. “Women shop all day. The guy shops too fast and picks something that doesn’t look as good. Women don’t want to rush a bad decision.”
Coleman added, “No one can say ‘I’m just not into politics.’ Politics is a contact sport. Everything is controlled and regulated. There are no sidelines. Everyone gets hit. Get out there and run!”
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga.