More than 500 women are running for U.S. House and Senate seats this year, an almost 70 percent increase over 2016. And in Kentucky, record numbers of women are running for state legislature seats this election year: Of the more than 200 candidates for state House positions, almost half of them are women.
It took only 242 years for a warning shot to ignite this rebellion.
OK, 242 years plus a well-qualified woman candidate for president of the United States besting her opponent by a zig of 3 million “popular” votes, only to lose to the zag of the Electoral College, 306 to 232.
Even worse, his White House win got a big assist from — wait for it — white women who voted for… A male candidate with no political experience who was caught bragging about his right to grab women’s nethers, even after 19 women — 19! — went public well before Election Day and accused him of such and similar sexual misconduct.
I can’t even. Still.
But, back to 242 years ago — this glass ceiling is a certified, fossilized antique — and the warning shot and eventual rebellion.
Abigail Adams, who wouldn’t be our second first lady for another score or so, was on to something big and Usain Boltishly ahead of her time when she wrote a 1776 note to husband John. He was toiling away from home (guess who was looking after the kids) along with other forefathers in birthing the Y-chromosome-only ancestor to our eventually evolved, 2X-inclusive descendant nation. The founding documents they scribbled wouldn’t represent or include women specifically for, like, ever.
I can’t even. Again.
But, nevertheless persisting, back to Abigail and her prescience of mind and spirit. On March 31, 1776, she wrote to John (italics added for emphasis):
“… In the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention are not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
They didn’t have mics then, but, someone, please knit sister Abigail an honorary pussy hat for that resounding drop. She didn’t get anything else for it.
Despite her sage advice, the guys baby-stepped the equality thing: Ladies, present but unaccounted for in the Declaration signed four months after Abigail’s written jab to John. Ladies, also absent in the Constitution ratified in 1788. Ladies, finally remembered — are we there yet? — in the 19th Amendment, which conferred on women the right to vote 20 years into the 20th century.
I promise we’re almost to Kentucky. But first…
That rebellion Abigail wrote about, lo, those many years ago?
Another century after gaining the right to vote, then the zig and that zag and …
Boom! Hello, 2017!
The spark had been there for a while, in multiple “years of the woman” that flickered but didn’t quite catch. Then, the self-professed grabber took the oath of office, which served as kindling for the next day: A bonfire for his vanities — Donald Trump lied about his inauguration crowd size — in the form of a huge women’s march in Washington and other cities at home and abroad. Crowd scientists said three times as many people marched in D.C. as showed up for Trump’s dour “American carnage” fest, and the 4 million or so who clogged roads and streets from sea to shining sea and then some populated what’s believed to be the largest single-day demonstration since, well, Abigail Adams and recorded U.S. history.
Then … Boom, again! Hello, 2018!
The boil of 2017 never died down. More men-behaving-badly stories told by women (mostly) finally were widely aired. Unlike the Trump 19, maybe belatedly because of the Trump 19, they also were widely believed. The stories affected almost every imaginable industry. And all that fired not only the #MeToo movement, but the dreams and ambitions of women to run for public office in record numbers in order to be — remember this? the ladies did — the change they wanted to see in the world.
That brings us back to today: Nationally, more than 500 of Abigail’s daughters are up for election in the U.S. House and Senate.
And we’re walking, we’re walking and we’re here:
Abigail’s belated rebellion is rocking Kentucky, too.
Talk about unbridled spirit and sisters doing it for themselves.
Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes told The Associated Press that record numbers of women are running for state legislature seats this election year.
No love for women in Kentucky politics
This bonanza of women candidates is great news for people who prefer more than token diversity at the government officials’ table, for voters who want to meet a new boss who’s not necessarily the same as the old (mostly white, mostly male) boss, for citizens who might care more or differently about health care, education, pay equity, domestic violence, abortion rights and family well-being than today’s crew.
In truth, Kentucky pretty much can only do better in expanding representation, voice and choice. We can’t do much worse.
Women hold slight advantages in sheer population numbers and in the percentage of registered voters, but Kentucky rests on the lower rungs nationally at No. 42 in how many women serve — or rather, don’t — in the General Assembly.
Currently, in the Kentucky House, there are 10 Democratic women members and nine Republican women members; in the Senate, two Democrats are women, as are two Republicans. The grand total of 23 women in the state’s legislative chambers represents 16.7 percent of the 138-member whole; among Kentucky’s immediate neighbors, only West Virginia — thank goodness for West Virginia — ranks worse at 14.2 percent.
A longer view: Kentucky, the 15th state to enter the union in 1792, has had only one woman governor — Democrat Martha Layne Collins, elected 35 years ago; only two women to serve in Congress — Republican Katherine Langley, elected 92 years ago (she followed her husband into office after he resigned, having been popped for selling illegal booze during Prohibition) and Republican Anne Northup, elected 21 years ago; and no woman elected to the U.S. Senate.
Bootcamp for women candidates
Helping to pump up that volume is Emerge Kentucky, which is primed and ready to go as women step up and step out for another, different “me, too” movement.
Emerge trains and encourages Democratic women to run for public office.
And serve effectively.
In 2009, Kentucky was first in the South to start an affiliate and is one of 22 states in which it operates.
Emerge Kentucky has worked with almost 200 women in its short history, and 26 of them hold office, ranging from judge to city council member to state representative to county clerk to school board to mayor, throughout the state, according to Jennifer Moore, Emerge’s founder and board chair and former chair of the Kentucky State Democratic Party. Graduates who run have a 61 percent win rate. More than 60 Emerge graduates have filed to run for office. This year’s class was expanded to 30 members from the customary 20 to 25 to accommodate the record number of applicants.
Moore cited the “wake-up call” of the 2016 presidential election, the galvanizing turnout for the women’s marches and the subsequent #MeToo stories — including ones out of Frankfort — as reasons for more women seeking out Emerge and political engagement.
“Right now, we’re seeing a tremendous wave in Kentucky, of women finding their voices. They’re saying enough is enough, and they want a seat at the table,” Moore said.
‘When the door opens’
Two Emerge grads from Louisville who have found seats in the House — and at the table — are State Rep. McKenzie Cantrell, District 38 and State Rep. Attica Scott, District 41. Both were elected in 2016.
Cantrell said the program gives women a real opportunity to look inside themselves and to build their confidence levels. The second, invaluable part, she said, is the nuts-and-bolts information on how to run a campaign. “When the door opens,” she said, “you have to be prepared to walk through it. Emerge helps you do that.”
In addition to the attributes mentioned by Cantrell, Scott found a huge bonus to being an Emerge alum after she took office. “It opens the door to a statewide network,” she said. She talks about how her “Emerge sisters” offer support during legislative sessions. Scott is trying to build on that network by adding and enlisting women throughout the state to analyze legislation and come up with action plans via Facebook Live sessions. “We don’t have enough women (in Frankfort),” she said.
Cantrell was 30 when she was elected. Scott was the first African-American woman elected to the chamber in almost 20 years.
The two lawmakers and alums are, in their own way, a good microcosm of the diversity and the individuals Moore says are the goals and reality of every Emerge class: Women of racial diversity, geographical diversity, members from rural and urban settings, LGBT class members and women representing many professions and backgrounds, all possessing a passion to lead and to serve.
The group practices the representation it preaches.
There is testimony to that in the lives and hopes of members of the Class of 2018. Their stories serve as a cross section of Bluegrass women who have political aspirations and want to add their hands and voices to shaping today and tomorrow. They present an inspiring, exciting view of Kentucky and political possibilities. Here are but a few:
JoAnne Wheeler Bland of Elizabethtown is 73. Her lengthy resume includes serving as the president of the Democratic Women’s Club of Hardin County. She is a member of the board of directors of ACLU of Kentucky. The former attorney has served as a special justice on the Kentucky Supreme Court.
She knew from the time she was 5 and living as John that she was something more, someone different. “I would pray when I woke up that I could live and be the little girl I knew I was inside,” she said.
After 2011 and an eventual 41 hours of surgery, which aligned her body with her soul and spirit, she didn’t have to pray about that anymore. She doesn’t identify as transgender, but describes herself as “formerly a transwoman.” Her transition cost her a spouse, a law partner, a church family, some friends, but it delivered everything else: JoAnne and the life she had always imagined. Her only regret was that she didn’t do it sooner. She was no longer “buried,” and once freed from pretending to be who everyone else thought she was, she set her sights on learning and sharing and doing and being.
Getting involved politics and fairness issues is one expression of that. Bland was inspired by Danica Roem’s 2017 win of a seat in Virginia’s House of Delegates: The openly transgender Democrat defeated a Republican incumbent who described himself as “chief homophobe.”
In the same year, Bland also learned about Emerge and its “awesome” program. “I know the importance of Emerge. It’s almost a political sorority of women who have tremendous education and training,” she said.
Bland had never been through a job interview, but decided to apply for the next class. She didn’t know whether they would choose someone like her. They did. She is thrilled with the experience and proud of being part of a network of women with whom she has discovered much in common.
She hasn’t decided yet when and whether to run for office; she thinks her age could be a hindrance in the minds of some. But she does know what she brings to the table: “I bring an understanding of everyone. I have learned how both sides think. I always heard the term ‘white male privilege,’ but I had no idea what it meant until I lost it.”
That loss could be the voters’ gain. Stay tuned.
Velvet Dowdy of Henderson retired in 2017 after a public education career that included administration positions and 22 years as a science teacher. She didn’t stay idle for long.
Inspired by her father’s run for public office when she was only 8 and concerned about what she sees as a disdain for public education and teachers, the first-time candidate decided to run for a seat on the Henderson City Commission in order to serve her community and issues she feels are important. Her platform includes a quality education for all children, and jobs that pay a living wage.
“I’ve talked to so many women who are not happy about the way things are going,” she said, “that the work done by our mothers and grandmothers is beginning to be undone.”
Their daughters and granddaughters are showing up to shore it up.
‘Be the change you like to see’
Glasgow native LaToya Drake is a young, rural woman of color trying to upset an incumbent in the race for the District 23 House seat. She had originally filed to run for the city council, but when she saw that state Rep. Steve Riley was running unopposed, she joined that race. The nutrition educator, who also has worked as a substance abuse counselor, said she comes from a line of strong women and she wants to show the girls in her community that she and they can be the same. “It’s super important to be the change you like to see,” Drake said.
She thinks her unique life and work experience will add to the discussions in Frankfort and serve her community, and she places a premium on getting along better and listening better. Her presence will ensure more voices are being expressed and heard. Her focuses, if elected, would be education and agriculture — food insecurity is important to her — and meeting citizens’ needs for shelter and health care.
“Representation matters,” she said. “Reach for the stars.”
‘If I don’t step up, who will?’
When Charlotte Goddard’s legislators didn’t show up last year for a scheduled town hall meeting with constituents, she decided to hold one and invite them. State Rep. Richard Heath, R-Mayfield, a no-show at the former gathering, agreed to attend the second meeting she set up in four days’ time, juggling work, home and details of setting up the town hall reboot. She expected 15 people to attend; 105 did, including three legislators. A week later, Emerge contacted her.
Despite Heath’s and the other legislators’ attendance, the Graves County schoolteacher still thought the legislators weren’t hearing their constituents. That built on her feeling that she and her fellow citizens were being let down by their elected officials, that public education was taking too many hits, that too much important dickering about big issues was taking place behind closed doors, that too many punitive measures were aimed at workers and were impacting families.
“Civic engagement demands us to be civically engaged,” she said.
So this wife, mother, teacher and first-time candidate is on the ballot for District 2’s House seat, now held by Heath.
She said she has had a lot of support from a lot of people, but highest praise came from her 17-year-old daughter, who compared her mom to Leslie Knope, the good-government, hyper-competent and conscientious deputy director of TV’s “Parks and Recreation.”
“It’s time for us to take our place,” Goddard said, sounding very Knope-ish. “If I don’t step up, who will?”
Abigail couldn’t have said it better.
Now, all we need to do is show up to vote.
The next Booms are up to us. •
Kentucky Initiative: supporting progressive candidates
Want to turn the Bluegrass State a little more blue in the years ahead?
Support the Kentucky Initiative — kyinitiative.org — a grassroots PAC formed in 2017 in response to Kentucky’s Bevin administration and the election of Donald Trump. Its purpose is to identify and support progressive candidates specifically for Kentucky’s House of Representatives, a longtime Democratic stronghold recently flipped Republican.
The group was founded by Amy Guyton, a myofascial therapist, who said she is married to democratic values, not the Democratic Party. She was a political independent for 26 years before she changed her affiliation to vote in Kentucky’s closed 2016 Democratic primary.
Rather than promoting a party, the Kentucky Initiative promotes candidates who support workers’ rights and fair, living wages; public education; clean air and water; affordable, accessible health care; protection of privacy for personal health choices; and equal protection for all Kentuckians.
Another main goal of the organization is promoting accountability.
Guyton noted that 25 percent of Kentucky’s House districts ran unopposed Republicans in 2016, and that “a significant number” haven’t had to debate or go on record with their positions on important issues to voters.