Local, Politics

Where Are All The Republican Women? Lawmakers Weigh In On Disparity At The Statehouse

More than 30 percent of Georgia's General Assembly are women this session, but there's a wide discrepancy in gender representation between the parties.
More than 30 percent of Georgia's General Assembly are women this session, but there's a wide discrepancy in gender representation between the parties.
Credit Mike Stewart / Associated Press

While a record more than 30 percent of Georgia’s General Assembly are women this session, there’s a wide discrepancy in gender representation between the parties and many theories for why that is.

That discrepancy under laid a recent moment on the state Senate floor after state Sen. Renee Unterman was bumped as chair of the powerful Health and Human Services Committee. Last week she took to the Senate floor to express her frustration.

But she also took the moment to criticize the under-representation of women on influential committees that handle the most important bills.

“Ladies of the Senate,” she said. “We are not the pitcher. We’re not the first baseman, we’re not the second basemen, we’re not the third baseman. I played shortstop, and we’re not the shortstop people. We’re not even in the outfield. As a matter of fact, we’re not even in the ballpark.”

They’re outside the field, looking over a fence, she said.

“And we’re climbing that fence, and we’re trying to look into the ball field to see who’s playing and, gosh knows, to see what the score is.”

She was followed by a line of Democratic senators, mostly women, talking about the same thing. Another example they mentioned: that Democratic Sen. Jen Jordan, a prominent lawyer, was passed over for the judiciary committee but made chairman of a special judiciary committee than barely handles any bills.

“I bring a skill set that can help this body move forward,” Jordan said on the floor. “And if all you’re going to do is put me in a committee and not give me any legislation to actually look at. Shame on you.”

New Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan who leads the Senate and committee assignments called the alleged discrimination “nonsense.”

But there could be something else underlying the discrepancy: the Republicans are in charge and there just aren’t that many Republican women to choose from.

(Graphics created by Ankita Ackroyd-Isales)

Unterman is one of two female Republican senators. That’s 6 percent.

Of the Democratic senators? Nearly two-thirds are women. Across the Capitol in the House? Fifteen percent of the Republicans are women. Of the Democrats? More than half.

Here’s the big question: why? There are some theories.

Sen. Unterman said that’s a disconnect from what she sees on the ground. In her experience, women are over-represented working locally on Republican campaigns.

“When I talked to the leadership of the state Republican party, it’s that we go after all people and we don’t specifically target women.”

And that’s a problem, she said, because it makes a difference to have women at the table. For example, she cited bills she worked on with Democratic women to guarantee women more than one day in the hospital after giving birth and after mastectomies.

“I really think that they [the party] should target women. I think there’s a treasure trove of abilities. And that women need to be at the table,” Unterman said. “And I think it’s really kind of a shame that I went through a period of time for several terms that I was the only female in the GOP caucus in the Senate.”

The two newest women in the Senate, Democrats who flipped Republican districts, were endorsed by the Georgia WIN list. It is a political action committee that recruits, trains and raises funds for Democratic female candidates in Georgia. There’s is no Republican version.

Republican Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick presented another theory for the disparity.

“I think there’s a lot of anger in our swimming pool right now,” she said. “People that are mad about something and want to change something tend to be people who are going to step up.”

That could be a factor since Republicans have had the majority for so long and female engagement is on the rise. Plus, there’s the strong reaction many liberal women have had to President Trump specifically.

Geography

Susan Meyers, a conservative communications consultant at Oak Grove Communications, had a different idea about the discrepancy.

“Suburban women, Republican women out in other parts of the state they really value spending time with their families and they don’t want to make that sacrifice,” she said.

Kirkpatrick doesn’t necessarily agree about a difference in motivation.

“I know there are a lot of Republican women who care about making a difference and about making things better and I can’t imagine that their commitments with jobs, family, etc, are any different that women on the other side of the aisle,” the Republican senator said.

But what about the time sacrifice it takes to get to the Capitol every week of session?

It’s a lot, especially if you’re from a district far away, which many Republicans are. Kirkpatrick says that argument makes a lot of sense.

Democrats, by contrast, are over-represented in metro Atlanta.

In fact, so are women: about 80 percent of all female lawmakers, from both parties, are from the greater metro area.

Not ‘Doable For Everyone’

Some legislators have to temporarily move to the city during the session, like Rep. Jodi Lott. She’s a Republican representative from Augusta with an 11-year-old and a 17-year-old. And the lifestyle, she said, isn’t doable for everyone.

“There are plenty of moms who tell me I would love to do that but I can’t do that until my six-year-old graduates high school,” she said. “You have to give up a lot to be here, and you have to have a family that’s willing to let you go. I live four days out of the week in Atlanta and I’m not at home getting my kids up to go to school.”

Living near the Capitol is a “huge advantage,” she said. “If you’re coming from a whole other part of town and you have anybody at home…how do you leave for three months? How do walk away from that?”

Lott added she doesn’t think the party discrepancy is a problem that needs fixing.

“It doesn’t bother me in any sense that there are more men in the Republican party. A lot of times by the nature of the way we raise our children and the way we run our households, to some degree men are more capable of going away for a few days,” she said. “And moms are more likely to want to be the mom at home.”

Democratic Sen. Sally Harrell from DeKalb County served in the Georgia House two decades ago, left and raised her children and returned to the Senate this session. She said even living in the metro area, it’s very difficult to do the job with small children.

“It’s hard to find childcare because you really need full-time intense childcare for three or four months, and then you really don’t need much,” she said. “And childcare centers aren’t interested in serving that temporary need.”

Being from rural Georgia would make it even more difficult, Harrell said.

“I would think it would be a tremendous barrier. It’s the travel. It’s having to live away from home.”

Sen. Jordan of Atlanta has two young kids. If she were from rural Georgia, she said she wouldn’t be able to make it work as she does now, going home every night.

A Personal Choice

But whether or not to sign up for the job, is a very personal decision, she said.

“It’s one of those things where you just have to wait until the time is right for you and your family. And that can mean different things to different people,” she said. “But everybody has to make the decision for themselves.”

Rep. Ginny Ehrhart agreed that it’s an individual choice. She opted to wait until her children were grown to run.

“I definitely would like to see more women throwing their hat into this ring,” the Republican representative said. “But I think there’s a lot of factors that play into why they do or not.”

And it’s not the only form of public service, she added.

Because being at the State Capitol is a lot of work, emphasized Sen. Freddie Powell Sims, a Democrat from South Georgia. She’s been in the legislature for about 15 years and ran after retirement.

“This legislature is said to be part-time, but it isn’t. It is a 24/7 dedication to the constituency,” she said. “So that can easily become a turnoff for a lot of women.”

Sen. Unterman said she has hope things will change because she’s seeing more women than ever engaged in politics.

“But it’s not just enough to go to the polls and vote,” she said. “You need to put your two feet at the table, underneath the table. And make sure that you’re a part of the process.”

Fifty-one percent of Georgia’s population is female.