[McLaughlin] More Female Candidates, Please

Whenever I meet a smart, progressive Mississippi woman who gets her opinion across, remains firm but compassionate and has the ability to inspire others, I find myself ecstatically blurting out: "You should run for governor someday!"

I'm often met with perplexed looks and one of three responses: "I have no experience"; "I'm not conservative enough for Mississippi"; or "I really don't want my less-than-perfect-past dug up."

At that point, the conversation usually comes to a halt. Politics conjures up images of power-hungry candidates slinging mud and low-balling each other while telling half-truths. The majority of those candidates are male, and I often wonder why any respectable woman would want to sign up for such a task. But without females running in the state's general congressional elections this year, and only one female judicial candidate in Hinds County, women will continue to lack a voice on important issues in our state.

The Mississippi Commission on the Status of Women reported last August that in 2003 women accounted for 13 percent of the Mississippi House and 12 percent of the Mississippi Senate. The state ranks 49th nationally for the number of women in office. Only two women have ever served in major statewide offices: Evelyn Gandy, who served as Commissioner of Public Welfare, Insurance Commissioner and lieutenant governor from 1964 to 1980; and Amy Tuck, who served as lieutenant governor from 2000 to 2008. No woman from Mississippi has ever served as governor or as U.S. senator or representative. The commission is currently working with the Mississippi secretary of state's office to compile more recent data on the percentage of women in the Legislature and the number of women currently running for office.

There are several theories why women aren't running for office. John C. Stennis Institute of Government Director Marty Wiseman says our state's traditional roles in which women have predominately been caretakers keep many from running.

It is clear that women also lack resources and encouragement from others to run for office, which can stifle their confidence. Jackson resident Jo Hollman, who ran for state Senate in 1985, said female candidates need to gain support from not just females but also males for donations and endorsements, which can be difficult in a state known for its good ol' boy mentality.

Sadly, our state is far behind others. In California, 32 women are running for congressional and state offices on the Nov. 2 ballot. Even our neighboring state Alabama has nine women running for state and congressional offices. And in the last few weeks we've see Delaware Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell (whom I do not endorse), California candidate for governor Meg Whitman and South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley dominate news coverage.

Tuck and her opponent Barbara Blackmon made history in the 2003 lieutenant governor's race as the first time two female candidates to run against each other for state-wide office. In the race, former Democrat Tuck was the Republican nominee. She challenged Democrat Blackmon on her pro-choice views. Blackmon, in response, signed an affidavit saying she'd never had an abortion, and challenged Tuck to do the same. Tuck agreed. Many women now say the focus on personal abortion choices created a chilling effect for women who may have considered a future political career.

Luckily, I'm not the only woman concerned about the lack of female candidates. Commission on Women Executive Director Pam Johnson said her organization is working with the John C. Stennis Institute of Government to host a women's political seminar in early 2010 to give women the resources and advice to run for office. The website,
sheshouldrun.org, is a great resource for women considering a career in politics. The site offers campaign tips and has a nomination form, in which you can ask a woman to run for office by offering an encouraging e-mail.

My friend Brittany Hickman, who is the state chairwoman for the international humanitarian organization CARE, brought up the fact that not enough women in Jackson engage in political issues and debates. I agreed with her, and recently over a few glasses of wine, we put our heads together formed and a group that tackles that very issue.

The group, appropriately dubbed W.I.N.E. (Women Inquiring, Networking and Engaging), is a bipartisan monthly get-together with a guest speakers and discussions on public policies and issues in Mississippi. We hope that this will start a conversation and encourage women to break our state's glass ceiling.

With statewide elections in the near future, this is the right time to address the lack of women in office. With more women candidates, I expect issues such as child care, reproductive health, domestic abuse, maternal care and pay equality will get the attention they deserve.

For details about W.I.N.E. meetings, e-mail Lacey McLaughlin at {encode="[email protected]" title="[email protected]"}.


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