Opinion Columns & Blogs

Women still face a long road to equal political representation, especially in Kansas

Patrick R. Miller

The 2018 election was “Year of the Woman, Part Deux.” Women, particularly Democrats, made gains nationwide. Kansas factored into that, electing Laura Kelly as governor, Vicki Schmidt as insurance commissioner and Sharice Davids to Congress. Despite these gains, women still have not achieved equal political representation.

Kelly’s win was not destiny. A year ago, Kansas had the only gubernatorial race in America with no woman running. Meanwhile, roughly twenty men were possible candidates, including several teenagers. There was an opening for a woman, especially on the Democratic side, and Kelly stepped into that void, albeit late and perhaps reluctantly. Though she ultimately prevailed, her gender was sometimes an issue, though a subtle one.

Female candidates are often told — usually by men — that they are unqualified. In Kansas, a Greg Orman surrogate ridiculed Kelly’s professional background as a recreational therapist for children with mental illness, insinuating that she lacked “a real job” and was thus unqualified to lead government, despite her 14 years in the legislature. Some activists on social media even said that Kelly’s only qualification was her gender.

Women this year were often branded — usually by men — as “Hillary Clintons.” That happened to Kelly throughout the campaign, but particularly from young men on Twitter who supported Josh Svaty in the primary. Yes, Kelly is an older, quiet and experienced lawmaker, but she is not Hillary. Even in the second congressional district Republican primary, Caryn Tyson, a conservative politician, was tarred as “just another Hillary.” So, if any female candidate is just another Hillary, then logically any male candidate is just another Sam Brownback? Awesome logic.

Moreover, some social media activists — usually men — suggested that Kelly expected women to vote for her because of her gender. Yes, after the years that men spent intentionally keeping women out of politics, some women want to support female candidates. But women also think with more than their reproductive parts. Most women vote Democratic, and the partisan gender gap is growing. Maybe most women voted for Kelly because she was an appealing Democrat?

Kelly aside, 2018 was mixed for Kansas women. Women still only have one Kansas seat in Congress. The number of women in the Kansas Legislature declined by two, and has actually shrunk long-term. Before the election, men were 89 percent of Kansas county commissioners and 73 percent of county commissions were all male. That number barely budged, though the populous Johnson and Sedgwick counties finally added women to their commissions.

Female politicians often say that women need to be asked to run because society tells women they are not good enough and should not make demands. Political science research validates that. Female candidates are more likely to run because someone recruited them, whereas male candidates are more likely to recruit themselves. Women are less likely than men to think themselves qualified or knowledgeable enough for politics. Young women, especially minority women, are less likely than young men to say that their parents talk to them about politics or encourage them to consider political careers.

So, for women reading this, you should run for office. Whether you are a CEO, a stay-at-home mom or work at Walmart, life qualifies you for politics. Love or hate Hillary, you are not Hillary. Despite what boys say, you are more than your gender and most voters will judge you on more than that. The voices of people like you are still disproportionately missing from government. If you do not fill that void, then who will? Representation matters.

Patrick. R. Miller is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Kansas.

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