TN leadership omits big talent pool: women

tennessean-news-graphicOur View. The Tennessean. November 6, 2013.

Tennessee’s population, like every other state, is just about evenly split by gender. In fact, it is slightly less so than most, with 52 percent of Tennesseans being female It amounts to a difference of about 160,000 people.

So it’s a little odd, even allowing for the South being a bastion of traditional “family values,” that Tennessee’s leadership structure is such a boys’ club.

Only two women, Jane Eskind and Sara Kyle, have ever held statewide elected office, having done so on the old Public Service Commission. Only six have ever served in the U.S. House for Tennessee. The first three succeeded their deceased husbands into the office for a single term.

The first Tennessee congresswoman in her own right, Marilyn Lloyd, represented East Tennessee’s Third Congressional District for 20 years, beginning in the 1970s. It wasn’t until 2003 that another woman, Marsha Blackburn, was elected to the House. Diane Black was elected in 2010.

Today, there are a few a high-profile leaders, such as state House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville. But when you look at the overall numbers, the lack of women is arresting: two of nine members of Congress; seven of 33 state senators; a mere 15 of 99 state representatives. Only four Tennessee cities of 30,000 or more population have female mayors.

A boys’ club, indeed. Whether that continues to be the case, however, may be up to a few organizations on the left and right politically that believe it’s time for something approaching gender parity.

A political-action committee, Women for Tennessee’s Future, has recently gotten attention for its backing of progressive female candidates for office, particularly Metro Councilwoman Megan Barry, as she eyes the 2015 race for Nashville mayor. Meanwhile, an initiative of the Republican National Committee, Right Women, Right Now, counts Speaker Harwell as one of its leaders.

Nationally, that group has a tough challenge of getting more women to run for office as Republicans, though in Tennessee, which votes solidly GOP for president, one would think the group could stir some base of support.

Why does gender matter in holding office? After all, women in Congress, for example, don’t vote as a bloc (compare Marsha Blackburn’s and Nancy Pelosi’s politics). But consider two things:

Tennessee lags behind most states in so many areas of importance: health, level of education, per capita income, assistance for the underserved. And it leads most states in areas that are detrimental: violent crime (especially violence against women); safety and development of its children. It’s just possible that a long history of poor to mediocre leadership has contributed to these problems.

If Tennessee voters and political organizations seek out male candidates in nearly all cases, whether from habit or because of being ill-informed, men who make poor leaders are usually going to beat out women who would make excellent leaders. And those results discourage those women from running again.

And then there is this: Where do young girls in Tennessee who might make great leaders 20, 30 years from now look for role models? They will have scant inspiration if they look around our state.