Last week on the floor of the Kentucky House of Representatives, a Republican colleague stopped me and asked, “So, you’re throwing in the towel?” He was referring to my recent announcement that I had withdrawn my filing papers and would retire at the end of the year.
I replied that, under the new redistricting map, minorities would make up more than half of my legislative district. He said, “But you could still win.” When I explained that I thought it was important to have more minority representation, he answered, “So, I guess you really believe all that stuff you talk about. Most people don’t, you know.”
In 1994, when I was first elected, female legislators, at least in Kentucky, were still a novelty. At one of my first committee meetings, when I had arrived early to review the agenda, a lobbyist (assuming I was a staffer) asked me to make copies for him. I replied that I didn’t know where the copier was and he huffed, “Well, find out.” I took the materials to the staff, who were horrified, and I calmly said it would be fun during roll call — which it was.
During a floor debate in 2008 on whether to require the HPV vaccine for school-aged children, one of my male colleagues (I’ll let you guess his party affiliation) asked me if men could get cervical cancer. When I looked at him questioningly, he asked, “Do I have a cervix?” I answered, “I’m not sure what’s going on down there,” gesturing to his lap, “but, I doubt it.” Representation matters.
During the conference committee on Senate Bill 152, the 2015 legislation that addressed the heroin crisis, I was the only female legislator in the room. When we got to the portion dealing with pregnant women with substance use disorder and tried to determine what week in their pregnancy they would lose their parental rights if they did not seek treatment, I pointed out that women’s bodies do not all function like clockwork and asked who would determine each individual’s exact week of pregnancy. We struck out the language.
In 2019, on the last day of the legislative session, majority leadership called me into a meeting and said they were finally going to pass the Pregnant Workers Act, but they needed to add an amendment regulating breast feeding and the amount of time workers could express their milk on the job.
I calmly said, “Great, I’ve got 17 Democratic women out there (on the House floor) who would be glad to stand up and talk for hours about the problem with this amendment.” It didn’t get called and the Act passed.
All of these examples are about why it is important for women be involved, but it illustrates why it’s such a problem when whole groups of people are left out of the rooms where their rights and concerns are being discussed.
The Kentucky General Assembly is overwhelmingly white, male, Christian and wealthy when compared to the state we all serve. Currently in the Senate, there are three African American men, one Latino, four women and 30 white men. In the House, there are 28 white women, three women of color, two African American men and 66 white men. There is currently one vacant seat.
At a time when the majority party’s agenda is focused on controlling women’s bodies and controlling the teaching of African American history, the lack of representation of the affected population is troubling.
Some years ago, at a Women’s History Month Celebration in the Capitol Rotunda, a white male Democrat admonished the mostly female crowd by saying, “You need to stand up and speak out.” I followed him in speaking and gave it right back at him: “For women to stand up and speak out, some of the men need to sit down and shut up.”
In stepping aside, I am merely following my heart, my values and my own advice.
House Minority Leader Joni Jenkins has represented House District 44, which contains parts of Jefferson County, for more than 25 years.