March 3, 1998
by Nicole Youngman
Why are women so poorly represented in the Alabama legislature as compared to other southern states? Some current officeholders as well as candidates past and present have talked with The Harbinger recently in order to help shed some light on the problem.
Several women involved in Alabama politics have stated that women and men decide to run for office for different reasons: women are interested in getting things done and furthering their causes, while men are generally interested in protecting the status quo and furthering their careers. Natalie Davis, a political scientist at Birmingham Southern College and former Senate candidate, stated that "The guys don't have a reason to run, it's what they do, it's their job!" Women, on the other hand, are more likely to get involved in politics through local issues that they care about, such as education, caring for seniors, crime, or even traffic problems. As Mayor Barbara Bobo of Millport stated at the Alabama Solution conference held in Birmingham this February, "There was so much to be done, and nobody was doing anything!"
These issues, Davis says, are more likely to appeal to the general population, which can be an asset during campaigns. Women can also enjoy some advantages from NOT being a part of politics-as-usual: "Women are considered more credible, honest, and fiscally responsible -- they know how to keep a checkbook and they understand the value of a dollar." At the Alabama Solution conference, State Treasurer Lucy Baxley made a similar observation: "Women understand money...suddenly we have a lot more money in Alabama with a woman treasurer!" Wayne Flint, a professor at Auburn University and the author of Alabama: A History of a Deep South State, also stated that economic issues are the most important for voters, as well as concerns about families, health, education, and child welfare. He described other issues, such as tort reform, as "niche issues" that voters in general are not likely to bring up.
However, a lack of traditional political experience and connections can also be a major difficulty, particularly when it comes to winning primaries. Davis cites African-American organizations, organized labor, the AEA, and the trial lawyers as the important players in the Democratic primaries, and the business council, ALFA, the AEA, and the religious right on the Republican side. "Women are less likely to be wired into these groups," she says, "but that's more about them being new than about them being women." Low voter turnout during the primaries is also a problem for women, because primaries are when the "core constituent groups" come out to vote.
Davis also cites the difficulties of fund-raising as a possible barrier to getting more women elected. During her own campaign for the Senate, she spent 20-25 hours a week on the phone "begging people for money...it's horrible, but that's how it gets done. You can't know what it's like until you actually have to do it." Being pitted against experienced politicians who have already raised large sums for their campaigns can be a frustrating experience, but she says she'd be willing to do it again: "If you don't run, the bad guys win!"
Mobile City Council Member Bess Rich got involved in politics in much the same way that Davis and others describe. She moved to Mobile with her family in 1980, and spent the next decade raising her children, doing a variety of volunteer work, and teaching preschool and first grade. While the president of a local civic club, she and her colleagues became concerned about a proposed zoning change adjacent to their neighborhood. Her frustrating experiences dealing with the city council, the Adjustment Board, and the courts prompted her to run for City Council herself not long thereafter.
"Most of my good friends told me I was crazy, " she states. "People are repelled by politics...it sends a negative message, and the more I heard that from very good people, the more I realized that it's time for people to get involved." Now in her second term, Rich says she focuses on giving residents a voice in city government, which is too often influenced by developers and businesses who have connections and know the ropes. "Everything should come to the table before decisions are made. People should get on a level playing field, the system needs to be fair...government needs to be fair." The change to a system of district representation in Mobile in 1985 has been helpful in this regard, she says: "We've come a long way towards bringing more people to the table with our district form of government...you have an individual who is highly accountable to their constituents when you have district representatives."
Rich is currently the only woman on the City Council. She spoke highly of former Council member Vivian Davis Figures, who was recently elected to the state Senate. "Our political philosophies are somewhat different, but our ability to communicate to each other is very well done. She was very interested in consensus-building, which was wonderful, and I think that's the tool that a lot of women bring...women, I think, look globally and look long...the here and now is satisfying, but the later has an even greater reward." Too many politicians, she says, are willing to go for short-term profits while ignoring long-term consequences.
Rich takes a non-traditional approach to her office in several ways. She refuses to accept PAC (political action committee) money and says she is a firm believer in term limits and so will not run for a third term, though she does not rule out running for higher office one day. She is the only Council member without another, outside job or business, and says she is committed to working full-time on what is considered a part-time position. She is also the only Council member who maintains an additional office at her own expense, where she can meet with her constituents at their convenience. And she is still thrilled by her title of "Honorable," and takes it very seriously: "It's such a wonderful position to be in...when you get elected you become 'Honorable,' it's a title that's given to you because you won the numbers. But you have to earn that, too...you're just a citizen who has been given this trust."
This year's gubernatorial election will prove interesting for women in politics. Lenora Pate, an attorney from Birmingham who was Gov. Folsom's Director of the State Department of Industrial Relations, will be running for the Democratic nomination. Pate also has a background in education and spent several years teaching gifted students in Birmingham. She portrays herself as a "New South" alternative to career politicians and has told Birmingham newspapers that her primary concerns are children's issues, education, unemployment, health care, and changing Alabama's tax structure. Pate has a considerable amount of fund-raising ahead of her, but Natalie Davis suggests that she is up to the challenge: "She will raise the money for a good credible campaign. The issue is not the issues, but 'Do you want more of the same?' Montgomery has politicians who only care about their own political careers. [Pate] is doing it for all the right reasons -- she doesn't have to run." Pate is highly religious and makes frequent references to women in the Bible that she feels can serve as role models for women in the 1990s, a tactic that may play well in a state where politicians work hard to out-Christian each other in their campaign commercials.
The women active in Alabama politics who spoke with The Harbinger have a variety of opinions on exactly how women politicians differ from men, and on how much these differences actually matter. But they all agree that, because women have different life experiences, when they become elected they are able to bring different points of view to a government that sorely needs them. "Women are the caretakers," Davis explains. "Not that they're better, but their life experiences push them towards that role." Experiences as mothers and educators can give women a desire to focus on fairness, long-term planning, and finding concrete solutions to real problems. One former officeholder suggested that such an approach can be problematic when it conflicts with the business-as-usual mentality of the "good-ol'-boys" who don't like the challenge or the competition. A "backlash by angry white males" may be responsible for why there are fewer women in the state legislature now than there were ten years ago. Finding women who are willing and able to become involved in politics is also difficult; in a poverty-stricken, traditional state, relatively few women have the means and the family support to run for office or to work for candidates who offer real change. Breaking the network that continues to ensure that the same old faces get recycled through our public offices, and creating a government that truly represents all Alabamians, must become a goal shared by both voters and politicians across the state.