Originally published October 4, 2018 on ledger-enquirer.com
Women are getting on the tops of ballots in record numbers this year, inching toward a still far-off scenario of gender parity in highest office. But in some of the more modest chambers of Georgia’s local governments, women are already a little less rare.
Joanie Rainey had been a teacher for more than two decades before she was elected to chair the Twiggs County Board of Education. Much of that time she spent teaching outside of Twiggs’ relatively small system, which counts about 800 students.
When Rainey looked at Twiggs, she saw a system with some problems and didn’t have the leadership it needed. Friends encouraged her to run. She was inspired by her own grandmother, who had been vice chairwoman of the board.
“I believe in public education, I believe in Twiggs County, and that is why I ran for office,” Rainey said.
Holman said you might expect school boards to have a relatively high percentage of women because it’s sort of a natural next step for people who already are steeped in education policy, working as educators, in social services or nonprofits or staffing a parent-teacher organization. The people working in those areas are disproportionately female.
A woman working in one of those areas might say to herself: “It turns out that I’m going to need to change policy to get what I want, and so I need to run for office,” Holman said.
Then it’ll be helpful if that candidate has networks that encourage her run and work for her win.
But Rainey and other women in local office are still unusual. There are almost 5,000 mayors, members of county commissions, school boards and city councils across Georgia. Not quite three in 10 are women.
While that’s not near parity, it’s still closer than the U.S. Congress, where 20 percent of officeholders are women. Those Congressional numbers are likely to rise after elections this year, though. As tracked by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, a record 235 women have won U.S. House nominations this year.
Why aren’t there more women?
Back in Georgia, headline figures mask some differences among local offices. Across the state, about 37 percent of school board seats are held by women. About 30 percent of Georgia’s city council members and mayors are women. In county office, including Macon-Bibb and Columbus leadership, only about 14 percent of officeholders are women, according to organizations for each of those local governments.
Barbara Williams is another rare woman. She’s a career-long educator who sat on Fort Valley City Council for about 16 years and is now the mayor of the city of about 9,000 people.
She said she ran because public service is part of the lifeblood of small towns, and she wants to contribute to hers. She said teaching children is a kind of public service too, but she realized she could impact even more people by helping set policy.
“Instead of complaining about problems, I want to be part of the solution,” said Williams.
But why is hers still an unusual path?
She said part of the reason is that it’s taxing if you’re a mother to also be an elected official.
“I have grandchildren and great-grandchildren who need my time, but it’s not like I have a 6-year-old or a 5-year-old or a teenager,” said Williams.
It’s true that men are pitching in at home more, but women still do the bulk of child-rearing.
Women who are in state office are less likely than men to have small children, according to researchers. The reasons for it can include things like the time and travel it takes to be an elected official or voter perception of motherhood.
Another reason why women might not be nearer parity in Georgia offices is party. Women lean Democrat as voters, candidates and elected officials. Red states like Georgia put fewer women in higher office than blue states.
Another thing researchers have found standing between women and office-holding is how well women do — or don’t — have a place in networks of potential supporters or fundraisers. That’s places like chambers of commerce, Rotary Club or the party organization. Economic development or business networks tend to be populated largely by men who look around their own networks and see mainly other men.
Holman said there may be reason to think certain things about some local offices may work in favor of female candidates. Voters may think women are more suited than men to the school board, if all the voter knows is the name on the ballot. Local offices are near home; with less travel, it may be appealing to those who have family responsibilities. Local elections are cheaper to win, which is better for outsiders. Entire small city or county campaigns may be run on the few hundred dollars that a big-city candidate obtains on a single fundraising phone call.
But those are questions for study on the local level; higher office has been studied much more.
“Local elections in the U.S. are kind of the Wild West. We don’t know a lot about local elections. We don’t know a lot about who runs for local office,” Holman said.
‘As good as the next guy’
Mayor Teresa Tomlinson is at the top of one of Georgia’s larger local governments as mayor of Columbus, population nearly 200,000.
Tomlinson said she teases her folks: whoever invented the 7 am official breakfast wasn’t a woman.
Women have to dress up to a higher societal standard than men, she said, and largely women have kids and morning responsibilities making 7 am a hard time to pull it together.
“So that’s a joke, but it’s reflective of a truth of the way we used to do things,” Tomlinson said. But she said the ways people gather to make consensus and create community power structures are evolving in ways that are advantageous for women.
For example, she said younger generations of folks, regardless of gender, aren’t getting up at 5 am to go to a 7 am breakfast. And anyway, the parenting space is perfectly good for politicking. Those other women (and men) at morning school drop-off or the parent-teacher organization or Little League are voters, she said.
As for taking those first steps toward community leadership, traditional networks like Rotary aren’t the only path, she said.
“You can certainly run for office having been a Brownie and Girl Scout leader or just having been an involved homeroom mother,” Tomlinson said.
As for party, the redness of the sprawl of counties outside metro Atlanta and large cities might help explain why only 14 percent of county officials are women. Georgia has a good many Democratic voters, but they’re clustered in and around cities.
And not everyone has a party affiliation in local elections. Bibb’s and Muscogee’s governments are both nonpartisan — elected leaders may personally associate with a party, but there won’t be a “D” or “R” on ballots to give voters a cue either way.
Rainey did have an “R” beside her name on the school board ballot. But she said she thinks there’s no need for party labels on school boards.
“That kind of thing does not really come into play in our school politics,” Rainey said.
Tomlinson foresees more and more women running for office, up and down the ballot.
She said before she ran for office, she saw men running as soon as they were old enough under law. And at some point she said she had her own realization, like: “Hey, wait a minute. Shoot, I can do this as good as the next guy. What am I waiting on?”
She said more women are having such a realization.
“They finally wised up to the fact that they’re perfectly capable and have been perfectly capable since they too have been at statutory eligibility,” Tomlinson said.