First female Speaker of the House discusses career, family

First female Tennessee Speaker of the House discusses career, family

Posted:
At age 56, Beth Harwell has achieved what no other woman in the history of Tennessee has been able to achieve. At age 56, Beth Harwell has achieved what no other woman in the history of Tennessee has been able to achieve.
In 2011, after serving 23 years in the legislature, her peers voted Beth Harwell the state's first female Speaker of the House. In 2011, after serving 23 years in the legislature, her peers voted Beth Harwell the state's first female Speaker of the House.
"I've always prioritized my family and they realize that. They've really known no difference," admitted Beth Harwell. "I've always prioritized my family and they realize that. They've really known no difference," admitted Beth Harwell.
"She's smart, she's fair, she's genuine," said Democratic House member Harry Tindell, a Democrat. "She's smart, she's fair, she's genuine," said Democratic House member Harry Tindell, a Democrat.

By GENE PATTERSON
6 News Anchor/Reporter

NASHVILLE (WATE) - Beth Harwell is speaker of Tennessee's House of Representatives. She is admired by both Republicans and Democrats and is considered one of the most powerful political figures in the state.

She is not quite yet a household name, but those in the know say you need to pay attention to her.

At age 56, Beth Harwell has achieved what no other woman in the history of Tennessee has been able to achieve.

In 2011, after serving 23 years in the legislature, her peers voted her the state's first female speaker of the House.

"The historical significance of being the first female speaker is not lost on me. It's pretty neat when your teenaged daughter tells you, 'You're cool,' because I don't get that very often," said Harwell.

6 News sat down with the Speaker in her formal office, just down the hall from the House Chambers, to find out more about her.

Surrounded by photos of her family, she talked politics and what initially drew her to government.

It turns out, as a young person in the 1970s, she was fascinated by TV coverage of the Watergate hearings.

Harwell was especially impressed by then-Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker.

"There was a whole generation that was turned off by the political process, but for me, it was the opposite. The system did work and the right questions were asked and I saw the need and role of the legislative body. I thought it was excellent," she said.

She also talked about her family: her husband, a local businessman, and her three children. The oldest is in college.

"I've always prioritized my family and they realize that. They've really known no difference," admitted Harwell. "I was in the political process long before they were born, so they've just sort of grown up with this. It's been a part of their identities as well."

Harwell appears to have found a balance between family life and political life. She'd like to see more women become involved in politics, but says it's hard for women because of money.

"I think the biggest obstacle for women in the political process is the whole concept of actually raising money in order to run for office," she said. "That's sometimes very hard for women to do, but it's part of the process."

Harwell was born Beth Marie Halteman in Norristown, Pennsylvania. She is the youngest of five children.

Raised in the Church of Christ, she came to Tennessee to attend David Lipscomb College in Nashville and later graduate school at Vanderbilt. 

She married Sam Harwell, a Nashville businessman, and is raising three children.

Beth Harwell held a number of jobs. The most prominent was professor of political science at Belmont College. Some supporters say she's a born teacher, which serves her well as speaker.

"My job as speaker is a lot like a teacher. No one can speak unless I call on them."

Another trait, her willingness to work across party lines, has made her popular among Democrats.

"She's smart, she's fair, she's genuine," said former House member Harry Tindell.

Tindell, a Democrat, retired from the House last year after 22 years.

"She's got a very professional, kind of professor, precise way of talking. She doesn't create a lot of drama out front and in public. But she's got a firm handle on the gavel and is absolutely in charge. She has a very strong knowledge of what's going on and a big hand in what happens," said Tindell.

What happens goes through Harwell's very strict litmus test for legislation.

"Does it increase the size of government, or not? Does it make it easier to own a business in Tennessee, or not? And third does it continue to move us forward in education reform, or not?" Harwell explained.

Harwell believes government should know its limited role and perform it well and efficiently. However, she concedes there is a need for regulation, specifically in environment and education.

"I think those regulations, though, should be limited and targeted and specifically protect the citizens," she said.

During our time with Speaker Harwell, she hit all the right Republican notes: state's rights, small government, and limited regulations. But is she considering a higher office one day? It's something she is not ruling out.

"I love this state, and I enjoy serving and working for the people of this state, and if that's an opportunity that would come my way, I would certainly be honored and humbled to serve in that capacity," said Harwell.

Finally, we asked the speaker how she hopes she's remembered. The question drew a surprisingly emotional response.

"That I listened well to the ideas that were brought to me and that I did the best I could in the positions that the people were allowing me to have," she said, her voice cracking a bit. "I love this state, and I have been so honored to get to serve."

The General Assembly gathers in Nashville in January, and the speaker says balancing the budget and moving the bar forward in education will be among the session's priorities.

Powered by WorldNow
All content © Copyright 2000 - 2014 WorldNow and WATE. All Rights Reserved.
For more information on this site, please read our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service.