Record number running in fall
Arkansas Democrat Gazette
LITTLE ROCK — In November, more women will seek seats in the Arkansas Legislature than have run in any general election in at least the past 20 years.
Forty-one women are on the ballot. Arkansas has not had more than 34 women seeking legislative seats in a general election since the Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics began compiling data in 1992.
There has been a 150 percent increase in female candidates since 1992. Lawmakers and political scientists differed on whether it was caused by voters’ changing attitudes, limits on how long lawmakers can serve or the growing strength of a second political party in Arkansas.
Rep. Ann Clemmer, R-Benton, said she thinks the change was caused by limits on legislator terms and the growth of the Republican Party in the past 20 years. Clemmer is running unopposed for reelection. She teaches American government and politics at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
“Running for office is not really something that was much on my radar screen prior to term limits. We were a one-party state, we didn’t see much turnover, there wasn’t any forced turnover, so it wasn’t really something that I put out there,” she said.
In 1992, Arkansans approved Amendment 73 to limit representatives to three two-year terms and senators to two four-year terms.
Clemmer said women also have a different understanding of what jobs are available to them.
“As far as the careers open to women, that is still changing and Arkansas has not been on the front lines of the change,” Clemmer said.
Term-limited Rep. Johnnie Roebuck, D-Arkadelphia, said she thinks the increase comes from women playing a more prominent role in the Legislature by leading committees and being more recognizable to the public.
“Twenty years ago we may have a few women up here but it was very seldom to see them in any leadership role,” Roebuck said. “I would like to think it’s because we’ve had such highly qualified female legislators over the last few years. Those women are role models.”
University of Arkansas political science professor Janine Parry said the limits also removed experienced women.
“Really, term limits swept out a lot of women, particularly African-American women,” Parry said.
She said overall the limits have had a “neutral to slightly negative impact” on the number of female lawmakers.
Parry said voters’ expectations of a female candidate’s abilities have changed. She said voters are less likely to discriminate against a candidate just because of sex.
Parry is director of the annual Arkansas Poll, which looks at voter behavior.
Of the 41 women running, 22 are Democrats, one is a Libertarian and 18 are Republicans.
That also includes 11 Senate candidates and 30 House candidates.
In the 35-member Senate, only two women are unchallenged for their seats: Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers, and Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock.
The other nine female nominees face opponents in November.
In the 100-member House, seven incumbent female lawmakers don’t have challengers in November. All but one, Rep. Jody Dickinson of Newport, are Republicans.
All but five of the 23 women who drew opponents would be new to the Legislature.
There are two House races where women are competing for the same seat.
In House District 38, Libertarian Debrah Standiford faces Democrat Patti Julian.
District 38 includes North Little Rock from north of Interstate 40, out to Pike Avenue around the North Hills Country Club and past McCain Mall back to I-40.
In District 77, Democrat Doris Tate is challenging Republican Rep. Stephanie Malone.
District 77 is on the south side of Fort Smith. It stretches along the Oklahoma border from the U.S. 64 bridge in Fort Smith south to just beyond the city limits, then north past Fort Smith Regional Airport to Rogers Avenue and along the avenue west back to the bridge.
Arkansas’ 100 percent rate of increase for the number of female candidates is far beyond the rest of the country, which only had a 10 percent increase in female candidates from 1992 to 2010.
According to the Center for American Women and Politics, in 1992, 17 women ran for the Arkansas Legislature – in 2010, 34 ran.
Nationally there were 2,302 female candidates in 1992. In 2010, there were 2,537.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of May 16, 2012, women made up 23.6 percent of all state legislators.
NCSL, as the conference is called, lists about 1,744 female lawmakers.
Sixteen states have fewer female legislators than Arkansas. That is true of all states surrounding Arkansas except Missouri.
Louisiana, with 11.1 percent, and South Carolina, with 9.4 percent, have the lowest percentages of any states.
With 40 percent, Colorado has the highest percentage of female lawmakers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Vermont, with 38.9 percent, is the only other state where more than 35 percent of its Legislature is made up of women.
Until passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920, women couldn’t vote.
In 1920, Arkansas Attorney General John Arbuckle issued an opinion that said while women could vote, they still were not eligible to hold public office because that power wasn’t provided to them in the state Constitution.
“It was evidently in the minds of the framers that the offices of the state should not be held by women, nor should women be given a political status in the state,” the opinion states. “Until we have either a constitutional provision or a statutory provision guaranteeing to women the right to hold office, it would not be proper.”
In November 1924, voters approved Amendment 8 to the Arkansas Constitution, allowing women to hold public office, by 63.68 percent.
In 1922 Frances Hunt of Pine Bluff was appointed to the state Legislature.
In the 31 years after Hunt was appointed there were only 10 female lawmakers, Roebuck said. Since 1922 a total of 105 female lawmakers have served in Arkansas, she said.
It wasn’t until 1993 that women made up 10 percent of the state Legislature; in 2007 the percentage hit 20 percent for the first time, according to Rutgers.
Arkansas women have never held more than 23 percent of the state’s legislative seats, Roebuck said. In 2010, Arkansas had 31 female lawmakers. In 2008, Arkansas had 28 and in 2006 there were 22. Roebuck said 2010, when Arkansas had 31 female lawmakers, was a record.
Currently 22.2 percent, or 30 of the state’s 135 lawmakers, are women.
In 1931, Arkansas became the first state to elect a female U.S. senator, Hattie Wyatt Caraway of Jonesboro. She served until 1945.
Caraway was also the first woman to head a Senate committee, the Committee on Enrolled Bills.
Arkansas has elected one other female U.S. senator,Blanche Lincoln of Helena-West Helena, who served from 1999 to 2011.
The state also has elected four women to the U.S. House: Pearl Oldfield, Effiegene Locke Wingo, Catherine Norrell and Lincoln, who was then Blanche Lambert.
In recent years women haven’t had much luck getting elected or re-elected to Congress.
“I don’t think people look at gender as a deterrent,” Roebuck said. “I think it’s all about the candidate. You could say it’s gender, but we’ve had some women who just lost.”
In 2010, Lincoln lost her re-election bid to John Boozman of Rogers and state Sen. Joyce Elliott of Little Rock lost to Tim Griffin of Little Rock. In May the only woman running, 4th Congressional District candidate Beth Anne Rankin of Magnolia, lost the Republican primary.
Parry said because Arkansas holds so few seats in Congress, it seems like a bigger deal when they are all held by men.
She said the same is true with the state’s seven constitutional officers.
Arkansas has had just six female constitutional officers in its history: Nancy Hall, secretary of state 1961-1963, treasurer 1963-1981; Mary Stallcup, attorney general 1991; Jimmie Lou Fisher, auditor 1979-1981, treasurer 1981-2003; Julia Hughes Jones, auditor 1981-1993; Sharon Priest, secretary of state, 1994-2003; and the current treasurer, Martha Shoffner, who was elected in 2007.
“We are way behind” other states, Roebuck said. “We may be ahead of some states [in other elected positions] but statewide elected officials? No.”
Shoffner of Newport is the only female constitutional officer.
“I think it’s sad that we are down to only one,” Chesterfield said. She said she isn’t sure whether it is more difficult for a woman to get elected or if women aren’t running.
She said Arkansans tend to elect people who have a history of political experience. With few women in the Legislature, she said, there isn’t as large a pool from which to pick female candidates for higher office.
“I think the opportunities are there. We have had a proud history of electing women,” Chesterfield said. “We just have to make sure women have the political background.”