As a history professor at Western Kentucky University, Patti Minter has long studied social movements. Now, she feels as if she’s part of one.
When she filed paperwork to run for office earlier this month, Minter became one of 36 women, not counting incumbents, seeking a seat so far this year in the Kentucky House of Representatives. She’s one of 67 total women running as of Monday afternoon for a spot in the Kentucky General Assembly, which ranks 42nd in the nation for female representation. The filing deadline to run for political office this year is Tuesday.
“It has taken the extreme nature of the Trump administration and the scandals in Frankfort that have caused people to say ‘enough,’” said Minter, who has been a faculty regent and a member of the Warren County Democratic Party executive committee.
The influx of female candidates comes during a watershed moment for women. The election of President Donald Trump in 2016 was met with women’s marches throughout the country, including one in Lexington. The #MeToo movement, which has brought down several powerful men accused of sexual harassment, has stretched into state capitols throughout the country and highlighted the under-representation of women in legislative offices.
Despite making up more than 50 percent of the population, women are a minority in every state legislature, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. The 22 women lawmakers in Frankfort make up just 16.2 percent of the Kentucky General Assembly, and none of them are in leadership positions.
“There’s just been such a shift in the political environment that started before the president, and since then, that has really brought the movement to life,” said Blair Haydon, executive director of Emerge Kentucky, a group that recruits and trains Democratic women to run for elected office.
In Kentucky, where Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by 29.8 percentage points, how much impact this movement will have on the political landscape remains an open question. All but 10 of the non-incumbent women running for the General Assembly are Democrats in a state that has steadily turned Republican in recent years, culminating in a GOP takeover of the Kentucky House in November 2016 for the first time in nearly a century.
In the House, 74 percent of the Democratic women seeking office are running for seats held by a Republican. In the Senate, it’s 100 percent. That makes getting elected a difficult task, said Steven Voss, a political science professor at UK.
“A party may put forward a decent block of female candidates, but they tend to nominate them in places where they’re sacrificial lambs,” Voss said.
Since its founding in 2010, Emerge has fielded 16 candidates in General Assembly races. Only three of those won.
The group has had better success in local elections. Jennifer Moore, chairwoman of the group, said it had a 61 percent success rate in all elections in 2016.
The lack of immediate success by many women candidates in the legislature has to do with the way our electoral system is built, Voss said. It takes a longer time for changing attitudes among the public to be reflected in legislatures, because it’s difficult for new people to get elected. Incumbency is a major advantage in most legislative races, Voss said.
Rep. Kim Moser, R-Taylor Mill, said it’s important to have more female voices in Frankfort, but gender isn’t always a good reason to vote for someone.
“I don’t necessarily subscribe to the thinking that you should vote based on gender,” she said.
Generally, people don’t. Voss said research shows that people rarely gravitate to a candidate based on gender, instead relying more on party identification.
“The preference for candidates of the same sex is not as strong as people assume,” Voss said. “But insofar as there is an electorate that does move that way, I’ve seen research that suggests Republican women have a slight tendency to drift over to the Democratic candidate if she’s female.”
Tiffany Barnes, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky, said having more women in the General Assembly tends to influence the legislative agenda, often in favor of policies dealing with maternity or paternity leave or childcare.
“This isn’t because men and women have dramatically different priorities, but because these issues are less likely to have a direct impact on the types of men who are elected,” Barnes said.
The lack of female representation was highlighted in recent sexual harassment controversies in Frankfort. In 2017, six lawmakers were accused of sexual harassment or sexual assault and with the exception of Dan Johnson, who killed himself, all remain in office.
Barnes said a perception of cultural corruption in Frankfort or Washington could help women running for office, noting that the House banking scandal of 1992 led to a record number of women elected to Congress that year.
“Women are often looked to to come in and sort of clean up politics and fix its image,” Barnes said.
That, in part, leaves Democrats optimistic about the chances of women running for office. They point to a backlash over Trump’s election, the sexual harassment scandals and controversy over proposed pension changes for teachers and state workers as reasons why Democratic women stand a better chance in November.
“It’s now or never,” said Blair Haydon, the executive director of Emerge Kentucky. “We can’t go back to where we were. It wasn’t long ago that women couldn’t vote and couldn’t even own property.”
Denise Gray, a special education teacher from Lexington, said she was inspired to run for the Kentucky Senate because of the state’s handling of education funding and the pension crisis. If no one else files in her district, she’ll face state Sen. Ralph Alvarado, R-Winchester, in November. Gray said she likes her chances.
“Women run homes,” Gray said. “We have a lot of single mothers who raise their children on their own. We have women who make the decisions in their communities. So why not in the state legislature?”