Women in Tennessee politics face a number of challenges

Women in Tennessee politics face a number of challenges

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"If there were bigger numbers of women, we would have smarter legislation. We would have a lot more collaboration and collegiality," said State Rep. Gloria Johnson. "If there were bigger numbers of women, we would have smarter legislation. We would have a lot more collaboration and collegiality," said State Rep. Gloria Johnson.
"I did a lot of things wrong, but I never voted wrong and misrepresented my constituents," said Julia Hurley. "I did a lot of things wrong, but I never voted wrong and misrepresented my constituents," said Julia Hurley.
"I don't think being a woman holds us back any longer in elective office," said Mayor Madeline Rogero. "It's getting out there working hard, talking about the issues and gather people around common ideas and talk about the issues and work to solve them." "I don't think being a woman holds us back any longer in elective office," said Mayor Madeline Rogero. "It's getting out there working hard, talking about the issues and gather people around common ideas and talk about the issues and work to solve them."
"It turns out in surveys that they express less confidence then men, that they can do well once in office or in government, and people attribute this to a lack of role models in government and politics," said political science Professor Anthony Nownes. "It turns out in surveys that they express less confidence then men, that they can do well once in office or in government, and people attribute this to a lack of role models in government and politics," said political science Professor Anthony Nownes.

By GENE PATTERSON
6 News Anchor/Reporter

KNOXVILLE (WATE) - Right now in the United States, women hold almost all levels of political office. Many say it won't be long before a female takes the White House.

However in Tennessee, the political landscape is mostly made up of men. A study ranks the Volunteer State 49th in the nation when it comes to women's political participation.

6 News talked to women who are political office holders about what they face, why more women aren't involved and what can be done about it.

The numbers are heavily disproportionate. In a state where 51 percent of the population is female, the General Assembly, for example, is more than 80 percent male.

In East Tennessee, that divide is even greater. Only two women, State Senator Becky Massey and State Representative Gloria Johnson, currently hold elected office from this region. That disparity, Johnson believes, leads to fewer bills that benefit women and families. 

"If there were bigger numbers of women, we would have smarter legislation. We would have a lot more collaboration and collegiality," said Johnson.

A study by the Tennessee Economic Council of Women shows Johnson is correct. States with the lowest percentage of women in legislature pass the lowest number of bills related to women's issues, specifically domestic violence, child support, employment protections, reproductive rights and more.

In states where women's political status is strong, their economic status and quality of life is strong as well.

Unfortunately, Tennessee reflects that research. There are both weak political and economic status for women.

So, why are there so few women in elected positions in Tennessee? Political science Professor Anthony Nownes says cultural bias is part of the answer, but it's also about what he describes as the "ambition gap." Fewer women run, leaving voters with fewer choices.

"It turns out in surveys that they express less confidence then men, that they can do well once in office or in government, and people attribute this to a lack of role models in government and politics," said Nownes.

Madeline Rogero is certainly one of a growing number of female role models. After a long stint on Knox County Commission, she became Knoxville's first female mayor, besting a large field of men to win the seat in 2011. She says many women shy away from politics because it can get messy with personal attacks and often unfair criticism.

"That's exactly why we need to be involved. I always tell people, first of all we have to toughen up. We have to say we have a responsibility in our community to get involved. I think that government does better when it is more reflective of the people it represents," said Mayor Rogero.

Julia Hurley, the former State Representative from Lenoir City, knows the highs and lows of political life. She won her first term and up a longtime incumbent, in part, because of her unique back story. She is a single mom who worked at Hooters to pay the bills.

Her story gained her name recognition, and she admits she enjoyed the coverage, but soon realized the limelight could be harsh.

"It was 'Hooters girl turns politician,' when it should have been 'woman who decided to take a job to support her family without government assistance, conservative Republican seeks seat,'" said Hurley.

Hurley lost her reelection bid and admits she made mistakes in her time in Nashville, but she also said coverage of her rarely got beyond "Hooters girl turns politician."

"I did a lot of things wrong, but I never voted wrong and misrepresented my constituents," she said.

Hurley's example, though not necessarily typical, does give women pause about running for office.

"When you do surveys of women in elected positions, they do report that they perceive that they get more scrutiny than men and also a different kind of scrutiny," said Nownes.

Nownes says that scrutiny tends to be more about a woman's looks than about her legislation, but that will change over time as more women get involved. The key is getting women more involved. 

"I don't think being a woman holds us back any longer in elective office," said Mayor Rogero. "It's getting out there working hard, talking about the issues and gather people around common ideas and talk about the issues and work to solve them."

Nownes says there are more female Democrats than Republicans, and that may be another reason so few women are elected in Tennessee, a heavily Republican state.

That is one reason why Speaker of the House Beth Harwell is part of a nationwide effort to get more Republican women to run for office.

All the women 6 News spoke with for this story say, regardless of party, women need to get more involved.


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