(WOMENSENEWS)–A decade after Congress celebrated the Year of the Woman, Southern states have sent few women to Washington.
In part, Southern women face the same obstacles as women candidates nationwide: political glass ceilings, limited fund-raising networks and few women in the pipeline.
But Southern women also face a dismalregional record of electing women.
“Women always have to perform a balancing act between being tough enough to be a politician and still be a lady,” said Susan Carroll, senior scholar with the Center for American Women and Politics, “and in the South, that’s a harder balance to strike.”
This year, several women have run high-profile campaigns in districts pivotal to party control of Congress.
In North Carolina, Republican Elizabeth Dole appears to be a shoo-in as her state’s first elected woman senator, in part because her national name recognition, experience in the President Ronald Reagan and President George H. Bush cabinets and connection to funding sources through her husband, former presidential candidate and senator, Robert Dole.
In Louisiana, where all candidates run in the general election, Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, faces a hotly contested nine-way election including three Republican opponents. If Landrieu fails to garner more than 50 percent of the vote on Nov. 5, as seems likely, the vote will go to a December runoff.
Two women look likely to be elected to the house from Tennessee and, in Georgia, two women are competing for a House seat. In Kentucky and Alabama, women have challenged incumbent senators and another woman in Alabama is running for an open House seat.
Women Face Commentary about Their Personal Lives
These races illustrate the steep uphill climb facing Southern women looking to scale Capitol Hill.
Studies have indicated that women candidates are less likely than their male opponents to be quoted on the issues and more likely than men to have their personal lives turned into campaign issues.
For example, Alabama Senate candidate Susan Parker’s primary opponent for the Democratic nomination, Julian McPhillips, questioned her ability to understand family issues because she had no children, suggesting that Parker could have used her campaign funds to adopt, The Associated Press reported. Parker revealed that a miscarriage left her unable to have children.
In a Republican run-off in the Louisiana race for Senator, fellow Republican candidate John Cooksey accused Suzanne Haik Terrell of lying about her anti-choice stance, citing a 1994 Planned Parenthood Federation of America fund-raising document that listed Terrell as an honorary co-chair.
Terrell denied involvement and revealed that her physician had once told her that she was pregnant with a child that could have birth defects. “I chose to have the child God gave me,” Terrell told The Associated Press.
“I think it’s a red herring,” Terrell added. “They can’t say anything bad about my public record.”
In addition, several studies from The White House Project and the Center for American Women and Politics concluded that reporters are more likely to note aspects of women’s dress and hair than they are that of men.
“Hair, hemlines and husbands, we call it,” said Beverly Neufeld, executive director of The White House Project.
For example, The Associated Press quoted McPhillips as saying, “I admit she’s better looking than me. Other than that, I have a very broad base of support.”
An article in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about House candidate Denise Majette focused on her short stature rather than her professional history as a judge, quoting one source as admiring Majette’s “grit and her spunk” before discussing her decade on the bench.
One Louisiana headline read, an AP story used the term “trailer girls” to describe the network of professional women that campaigned out of a trailer home in Foster’s successful gubernatorial bid.
Fund-Raising Stymies Women Candidates
Donors may be skeptical of women candidates in states where few women hold statewide office and fewer still have held national office.
Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia are among the 10 states with the worst records of electing women to the state legislature. Alabama is in last place, with 7.9 percent, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.
The national average is 22.6 percent. Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina and Louisiana also fall below the national average, according to the center.
Alabama and Mississippi have never elected a woman to serve in the House or the Senate. Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia have never elected a female senator.
Women often lack the political and corporate fund-raising networks that men with long histories in state politics or business rely on, said Karen Foerstel, co-author of “Climbing the Hill: Gender Conflict in Congress.”
“Women are very supportive but women are not traditionally large donors politically,” said Parker, who was Alabama’s state auditor before running for Senate. “Men are less likely to give you as much,” she added.
“They often defer to their husbands on the giving side,” said Terrell, who was the first Republican woman to hold statewide office, commissioner of elections, in Louisiana.
Parker’s Republican opponent, Sen. Jeff Sessions, has raised 10 times more than Parker, pulling in more than $5 million in campaign funds as opposed to Parker’s $500,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Few studies have focused on funding disparities at the early stages of women’s campaigns, when funding is most critical. Succeeding in state primaries goes a long way toward convincing donors of a candidate’s viability.
Incumbents running for office also tend to raise substantially more money than challengers. “It is because you have so many women challengers and so few female incumbents in federal office that women raise less than men,” Foerstel said.
However, in the race for Alabama’s open District 1 House seat, where there is no incumbent running, Republican candidate Josiah Bonner has raised more than six times as much as challenger Judy McCain Belk, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. At least in part because of her tight budget, McCain Belk appears unlikely to win the seat vacated by retiring Rep. Sonny Callahan, a 16-year House veteran and a member of the House Appropriations Committee.
Open Races Are More Woman-Friendly than Incumbent Battles
Historically, women candidates have better luck running for open seats than challenging an incumbent. In the so-called Year of the Woman, 1992, the open House seats totaled 93; this year, 42 seats are open.
Moreover, in the South, those seats are less plentiful: Southern states have sent such GOP powerhouses as Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond, the longest serving senator in history, and North Carolina’s Jesse Helms, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to Capitol Hill.
Now, Marsha Blackburn looks likely to win a seat left open by Tennessee Rep. Edward G. Bryant, who left the House to run for the Senate but lost the GOP nomination to Lamar Alexander. Janice Bowling is the frontrunner to fill the seat left open by Rep. William V. Hilleary, who left Congress to run for governor.
Dole will likely succeed Helms, who is retiring after 30 years. Lott is not up for reelection this year.
There are no women running for the Senate seat vacated by 98-year-old Thurmond, who is retiring after 48 years.
Of women to serve in the House from Southern states, many have succeeded their husbands by special election. From Alabama, the only woman to serve in the House succeeded her husband; from Arkansas, three of four; from Georgia, one of four; from Louisiana, two of two; from South Carolina, three of five; from Tennessee, three of four.
Louisiana has had three female senators. Before Landrieu, two women served out their husbands’ terms. From Alabama, one woman was appointed to fill the vacancy left by the death of her husband and one was appointed by her governor husband to fill a vacancy.
Georgia has had one woman senator. Rebecca Latimer Felton, a Democrat, was the first woman to serve in the Senate. She was appointed in 1922 to fill the seat left open by the death of Sen. Thomas Watson. Felton served for two days.
Asjylyn Loder is a freelance writer in New York.
For more information:
Center for Responsive Politics:
Center for American Women and Politics:
The White House Project: