Power vacuum for women still evident under the Gold Dome

mlee@macon.comJanuary 26, 2013 

ATLANTA -- Women make up about 23 percent of Georgia’s state Legislature and just 8 percent of committee chairs, the powerful gatekeepers who can single-handedly stop legislation. Both figures put Georgia behind other states.

Everything from family and work to party structure keep women from choosing a run for the Gold Dome, some say.

“Unfortunately, as much as we hate to admit it, I think politics is still a good ol’ boys game, so the opportunities are not as readily available for women,” said state Rep. Nikki Randall, D-Macon.

A total of 53 women serve in the 236-member Georgia General Assembly, ranking it No. 29 in the country. Only five run committees.

Not all state legislatures have chosen committee chairs yet, but Georgia’s numbers are the same as in 2009, when it ranked near the bottom, according to statistics kept by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

But it’s worth getting women in leadership positions because “men are much more agreeable, they try to be more cooperative” when there are women around, said state Rep. Susan Holmes, R-Monticello.

All things being equal, men and women win elections at the same rate, said Katie Ziegler, program manager for the Women’s Legislative Network of the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures.

“It’s not that women aren’t winning their races. There’s pretty much parity there,” said Ziegler, “so a lot of people look at who is choosing to run. That’s where there’s still a pretty big discrepancy in numbers.”

Holmes, leaning back in her big office chair, offered another perspective. “Sometimes I think we are our own worst enemy. We do not promote each other. We need to do that.”

Yet she admitted to a paradox: She’s not active in the House Women’s Caucus because she doesn’t like joining groups set up just for women.

Some women bring too much emotion into the sharp game of politics, Holmes suggested. “You’ve got to be sympathetic, but you can’t go overboard,” she said, “or you’re going to get labeled ‘Oh, that crazy lady.’”

She explained, “You’ve got to be firm. I learned that in 12 years in the mayor’s office. ... If you get things done, you can’t please everybody. You’ve got to have thick skin.”

Holmes is retired, as is her remarkably supportive husband, Paul, who is omnipresent in the Capitol halls helping do her business -- or chauffeuring her around town.

But at a different stage of life, or with a different kind of partner, political life is harder for women.

“In this position, unless you live in the metro area -- you know, women are head of the household, leading the household -- if they have small children, they just don’t have the opportunities that men do to go stay in Atlanta,” Randall said. “The further you get away from the Capitol, the harder it is.”

Most non-metro Atlanta legislators spend the 40 or so days of annual lawmaking business in the city, staying in hotels or short-term condos.

That tends to cut into work life as well as family. Employers don’t tend to see lawmakers -- and all the time they spend on political work -- as useful employees.

Valdosta teacher Amy Carter is a high-ranking Republican state representative, chairing the Governmental Affairs Committee and ranking or sitting on several others. She said she feels called to political work, and she is able to do it both because of robust family support around her two young children and because her employer is willing to work with her lawmaking schedule.

She doesn’t see the gender ratio in the Legislature as a problem, saying it’s important to recruit good people, no matter the gender.

If she had to guess why there are relatively few women in politics, Carter said, “I would guess family obligations.”

Women are breaking through the glass ceiling in business, but in politics, they are not, said state Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford.

She’s the only female committee chair in the Senate, heading Health and Human Services. She also sits on the powerful Appointments Committee, which decides who sits on choice panels and who sits on relatively boring ones.

“I don’t really have the reason” why women aren’t in politics, Unterman said, sitting by glasses, phone and a stack of papers after an hours-long session. “But one thing I do know, within the Republican Party there is not a concerted effort to bring young girls and women along into the system.”

Both parties have national political action committees that support female candidates: EMILY’s List for Democrats, ShePAC for Republicans. The Georgia WIN List aims to train and elect Democratic women. The Georgia Federation of Republican Women has chapters all over the state.

Such groups might be important. There is research saying that women are more likely to run if they are asked to, said Ziegler. Men, on the other hand, are likelier to come up with the idea for themselves.

“The biggest problem I see is for young girls, you don’t look up and see a Margaret Thatcher. You don’t have a role model,” Unterman said. “No one puts it in your head that you can be that, that you can do that.”

Georgia’s Legislature is dominated by the GOP, which holds nearly two-thirds of the seats. All-Republican committees choose chairs.

And there are plenty of women involved in the dominant party’s politics. Indeed, Republicans broke the gender barrier at the House speaker pro tem’s office, choosing Jan Jones of Milton for the No. 2 House post in 2010. Since 2007, Sue Everhart has chaired the state GOP.

But it’s just not translating to legislative power for women.

In the state Senate, much depends on seniority, and as Unterman pointed out, in the South, women are generally slower to get into politics than in other regions.

Randall chaired the Interstate Cooperation Committee when the Democrats were in charge of such appointments. Her office is full of awards and mementos from more than a decade in the Legislature. But among all the reasons Randall lists for the lack of women in leadership, she does not blame the GOP.

She doesn’t remember Democrats pushing for female committee chairs too hard either. Indeed, under their leadership in 2001, only seven women chaired committees.

Holmes said she is too old and too busy to want a committee chair.

“These young folks need to be asking for committee chairs,” she said.

The Telegraph is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service