As a woman working in the political arena, I often attend public meetings held by elected officials at varying levels of state and local government. The meetings all pretty much look the same, whether sitting in a legislative committee meeting in Little Rock or a city council meeting in Russellville. A quick tally of the audience will generally include a mix of citizens, attorneys, business interests, advocates, and staffers. Sitting front and center will be a distinguished looking group of elected officials prepared to make the laws that govern our daily lives and spend the taxpayer funds. Anyone taking a headcount of the lawmakers will generally be left asking: “What the heck? Where are all the women?”
This problem isn’t isolated to our community. Some countries have requirements that women hold a certain percentage of legislative positions. But across America, communities are still disproportionately represented by older white men. In Pope County, women make up 50.4 percent of the population but hold only 12 percent of local elected positions. People of color are hardly represented at all. The 2020 election cycle provides a perfect example of this issue in real time. Last November, 62 individuals made their way to the courthouse and declared their candidacy for a local office ranging from school board to justice of the peace. There were 58 men and four women on the final list that voters will consider in 2020. Men more than 40 years old made up 83 percent of the candidate list.
Research shows that when women run for office they are elected at the same rate as men. Female lawmakers are more likely to work across party lines, actively engage with constituents, and prioritize health and education policy. In the words of Madeleine Albright, women in office “can be counted on to raise issues that others overlook, to support ideas that others oppose, and to seek an end to abuses that others accept.”
With all of this in mind, it seems obvious that our community would benefit from more women in office. But that still doesn’t explain why they aren’t there already. The simple answer is that women aren’t being asked. Compared to men, women are much less likely to see themselves as “the right choice” for an elected position without being prompted. That doesn’t even begin to address the additional hurdles that all candidates face. From the initial fundraising launch to the craziness of election day, there’s no doubt that campaigning is hard work regardless of gender.
Michelle Obama once said: “The difference between a broken community and a thriving one is the presence of women who are valued.” It should be clear by now that achieving any level of gender parity at the local level will require a dedicated effort by our community. There are many examples that we can draw from in order to begin strengthening our own local ethos on gender. Nationally we have seen more women successfully running for office after participating in political mentoring programs. These programs provide a forum where candidates come together to learn the ins and outs of running for office. Some states have created public campaign funds that support candidates who agree to certain best practices for campaigning. In July 2018, the Arkansas Ethics Commission issued an advisory opinion clarifying that candidates may use campaign funds to cover childcare expenses.
Those are all excellent examples of policies and programs that help women run for office, but they don’t address what a regular person can do to create a local government that looks like the community it represents.
The answer is simple — just ask.
Think of the women or people of color in your life who inspire you, who have a talent for finding solutions, or who make a great teammate. Then go ask them to run for an elected office. That simple act is the single most effective way for each of us to create a more diverse local government. Just ask…then ask again and again.