By Erin Beck
The Charleston Gazette-Mail, W.Va.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Many argue that political views are more important than gender when it comes to picking a candidate. But 2016 wasn’t exactly what anyone could call an inspiring year for women in politics in West Virginia.
The Charleston Gazette-Mail, W.Va.
In 2017, the state Legislature will have 18 women — the lowest number since 1984.
The female incumbent secretary of state lost. The female candidate for auditor lost. The female candidate for state treasurer lost.
The female candidate for governor belonged to a third party, so it wasn’t shocking, but she lost, too.
Seven men and no women ran for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The female candidate for president won the popular vote nationwide, but lost by an overwhelming margin in West Virginia.
And West Virginia has never had a female governor.
There is one bright spot: the state Supreme Court will have a female majority for the first time.
Many argue that political views are more important than gender when it comes to picking a candidate. But 2016 wasn’t exactly what anyone could call an inspiring year for women in politics in West Virginia.
According to Shifting Gears, a 2014 report by the nonprofit Political Parity, researchers who spoke to current and former female political candidates found that nearly three in four reported incidents of discrimination in politics.
Republican and Democrat women currently and formerly serving in elected office who were interviewed for this story varied in their perceptions of how much sexism exists in politics, now and in the past, although you can usually find at least a hint of it.
Even Shelley Moore Capito, the senior senator from the state, said she sometimes perceives sexism.
“Have I had instances where I felt that wouldn’t be said that way or I would have gotten maybe a better opportunity to express my view? Do I feel like that’s because I’m a woman?” she said. “Absolutely, that’s happened to me. I’m just not going to let that get me down. At the end of the day, it’s work. I know the sexism is out there. I don’t think [it’s] enough to hold anybody down. I really don’t, unless you let it.”
Of the presidential election, Capito noted that “politics is a tough business.”
“It can’t be any tougher than at the presidential level,” she said. “I think they presented their views and the voters spoke however they wanted to speak. I don’t think Secretary [Hillary] Clinton was defeated because she was a woman. I can’t read her heart. I can’t imagine that she thinks that either, but it’s tough. It’s tough stuff.”
Whether or not they had stories to share and were willing to share those stories, all women interviewed for this story, with varying levels of success, encouraged women to join them. All the women interviewed agreed that running for office is worth it.
Capito, who has visited several elementary and middle schools to encourage girls to run for office, said she sees politics as a “tremendous future for young women.”
“Maybe they don’t see enough leadership at the top,” she said. “Many of us who are already in it can show it can be done and will be done.
“Women should think of themselves in that role more … and not wait to be asked.”
Capito sees it as a responsibility of those who have been successful in politics to encourage younger women and girls to serve.
“I think that we haven’t had enough women sort of in the pipeline,” she said. “I think if you ask any man in Congress or in the House or in the Senate if they’d rather run against another man or woman, they don’t want to run against a woman because we make such strong candidates.”
Capito also said it’s important for women to serve in elected office, because their experiences influence decision-making.
“I think we really multi-task because we’ve got a lot on our plate, just in general,” she said. “I think that translates into public service.”
She also noted however, that for Republican women, it can be harder to get out of the primary.
Delegate Charlotte Lane, a Republican who has previously served in the House of Delegates and was just elected to serve another term, said she hasn’t perceived any sexism during her time in politics. She said that maybe her “serious” personality warded it off.
But Lane, who also served on the state’s Public Service Commission, hasn’t been immune to sexism. In law school, she and another female student went to the dean after a legal fraternity told them they couldn’t join.
And she admits that it can be harder for women to raise money, because they haven’t been as involved (which would mean, technically, that the sway of money in politics is a form of institutionalized sexism.) Research suggests that to raise the same amount of money, women have to ask more often.
“I think we just haven’t had that much experience, but we’re getting better at it,” Lane said.
She too, urged young women to run for office.
“West Virginia is a great place to live, but we also have lots of challenges, and we can use everybody’s ideas that we can get,” she said.
Delegate Kayla Kessinger, a Republican representing Fayette County, said “the only time I get pointed out about being a woman in the Legislature is when I do interviews about being a woman in the Legislature.”
She wants to see more women run, too.
“They don’t automatically wake up and say I want to run for office because they have so many other areas of their lives that are pulling at them,” she said.
Kessinger, who also said she doesn’t see sexism in politics, is employed with a law firm in Beckley that gives her three months off for the legislative session. She does say, however, that she has great respect for the women who can juggle lawmaking and raising children.
Researchers who conducted interviews with current and former female political candidates have found that the family lives of female politicians are called into question far more often than those of male candidates, and that women are often asked why they are not taking care of their children — a question rarely asked of male candidates. Slightly more than half of candidates surveyed waited until their children were teenagers or adults before running for office.
Asked whether familial expectations might be different for men, Kessinger brought up Delegate John O’Neil, R-Raleigh, whom she said has several children.
“I know it’s difficult for him to have to miss their basketball games and sporting events,” she said.
Delegate Kelli Sobonya, R-Cabell, said, like Kessinger, that she thinks people vote based on shared values.
“I just like to be color blind and gender blind,” she said.
She does appreciate the camaraderie of the women’s caucus lunches, though.
“It’s a time for us to come together,” she said. “We shed our political stripes.”
People can also argue about how much sexism affected Clinton’s presidential campaign — whether people would have said a man was too power-hungry, like they did about a candidate with her credentials; how much the deep dislike of her stemmed from sexist attacks in the 1990s; or why some of the same exact same scandals left her husband unscathed.
An Access Hollywood video, made public by the Washington Post, revealed that President-elect Donald Trump said of women that he could “grab them by the p—y” and that when you’re famous, “they let you do it.” That implies either that A. the president-elect admitted to what he knows is sexually assaulting people, B. the president-elect does not understand that women might not want to engage in sexual activity with someone because they are famous, or C. Trump thinks that lying about that kind of behavior is OK.
After the election, when the darling of the white supremacist “alt-right,” Milo Yiannopoulos, appeared at West Virginia University, a group of male students chanted “grab them by the p—y.” The Southern Poverty Law Center collected reports of similar incidents nationwide.
Also after the election, several people who work with victims of sexual assault in West Virginia would not even consent to going on the record with the Gazette-Mail after the election about how victims are faring.
To Charlene Marshall, a former delegate serving Monongalia County, the backlash feels familiar.
Marshall, a black woman who served as mayor of Morgantown before going on to serve in the Legislature, was floored by some of the comments from her colleagues after President Barack Obama won the election.
“Maybe they didn’t think I heard their comments,” she said. “You just never know who has those racist feelings.”
Since the presidential election, she has been shocked by the number of people, even women, who told her they weren’t ready for a woman president, and saddened to watch hate crimes against minorities go up. She heard the comments about Michelle Obama, and thought about how many people look up to and admire the first lady.
“I do not want those kind of things to be happening in West Virginia, but we know they happen all over,” she said.
But she also sees a need for lawmakers who reflect their constituents. And she continues to think that the fight is worth it.
“I would tell anyone to get involved,” she said. “I was always active in a number of organizations, but never would have thought of doing that to help me in politics. That was a big help. I would tell young people to get involved in your community and to stay tuned in to what’s going on in the political world and to get involved to make a difference.”
To Bonnie Brown, who got into politics when it was still almost exclusively male, it feels like we’re going backward.
Brown, a former Democratic delegate serving Kanawha County, said she watched a woman in the Legislature who was the most qualified be denied a position because of her gender.
“I had people tell me they would never vote for a woman,” she said. “I had women tell me their husbands wouldn’t let them vote.”
She started out as a lobbyist, and remembers one incident in particular, when she was lobbying for domestic violence legislation.
“I had a male senator tell me it was nobody’s business if he beat his wife,” she said.
Once elected, she worked on changing the terminology from “chairman” of a committee to “chairperson.” When women sponsored bills, she objected to staffers typing “Miss” or “Mrs.” on copies of the bill, knowing that some male lawmakers may wonder how much a husband had to do with the bill. Now, bill sponsors are identified as “delegate” or “senator.”
She remembers the chuckles, and the nudges, when the Legislature worked on a breastfeeding bill and some men wanted to create standards for how much of the breast could show during breastfeeding in public.
“The men seem to think women’s breasts are for sexual gratification only for them,” she said. “They don’t seem to understand they were put there to keep babies from starving.”
“It was just infuriating because it was serious,” she said. “Those kinds of attitudes just makes you wanna — well, I won’t say.”
Brown has stayed in contact with other women lawmakers throughout the nation. She said she felt like there was a point where blatant sexism, such as name-calling, was less accepted.
“We felt that we’d made some progress over the years,” she said.
The mutual respect that she worked to foster seems like it’s slowly started to erode over the years. And the election of Trump “opened the floodgates,” she said.
“It’s a loss of control that they have and they’re losing that control,” she said. “It’s something they’ve always had. It’s painful for a lot of people, and they can’t handle it well. But it’s also very sad for the future.”
Brown also had some advice:
“Women seem to be easier game,” she said. “I guess they think they can break them. You have to be a strong women to run for office. You can’t let other people’s biases and whatever get in your way.”
She’s not going to lie to you, though. You’re probably going to be called “uppity,” or another name, she said. People are going to think your self-esteem is too high.
“You just have to plough through it,” she said.