BY MILTON READY
Psst! Have you heard that, politically, 2018 is the year of the woman? That #MeToo also means that women will take back their rights as well as their nights?
That more are running for political office than ever before, not only nationally, but also in North Carolina, where a total of 97 women — 65 Democrats and 32 Republicans — are running for legislative office? For those General Assembly seats, that means 38 percent of the Democratic candidates are women, and 19 percent of the Republican candidates are women.
Still, don’t get too excited. After all, this is North Carolina, and even if every woman running were elected, the gender gap still would not be closed. North Carolina will remain a male-dominated state politically, especially in rural parts of the state. Remember, North Carolina has the second-highest rural population of any state, behind only macho, belt-buckled Ted Crazy Texas, my home state.
If you want to be really historical about the gender gap in North Carolina and the nation’s, it’s probably going to worsen after the 2018 midterm elections, no matter how celebratory a few congressional, gubernatorial, state or local victories. Why? Think a post-Trump bump, a Brett Kavanaugh backlash, a Hillary hangover and a residual misogyny activated by the #MeToo movement that seemed to threaten mostly white males.
Like snakes hiding just below the surface waiting to strike, latent misogyny in North Carolina and elsewhere will be reborn this election cycle and, no, it’s not just men doing it. Never underestimate the misogyny of women, especially if they’re Southern. After all that has happened since 2016, surely mothers and fathers will tell their daughters to go into business or accounting rather than politics.
The high mark for women in North Carolina came in 2008 when Elizabeth Dole and Kay Hagan ran for the Senate, and more women served in elected office than ever before, if briefly. Afterward? Read a report released last month by David McLennan of Meredith College, The Status of Women in North Carolina Politics, and you’ll find that, since 2014, the percentage of women running in 2018, except for Republican women, actually is lower than in 2014, well before Hillary’s candidacy. Moreover, women who live in rural counties have lost political representation (never great) since 2014. The number of counties where no women are serving on boards of commissioners has increased from 44 to 46, while only three of North Carolina’s 100 boards have a majority of women.
Yet perhaps the most dismaying aspect of McLennan’s assessment lies in one continuing trend: North Carolina elects or appoints few women to power positions such as mayors, boards of commissioners, law enforcement, city and county managers and city councils. Sheriffs? North Carolina currently has one — Susan Johnson of Currituck County, who is not running again in 2018; only two others, B.J. Bayne of Polk County and Paula Dance of Pitt County, currently are running for sheriff. Historically, North Carolina has executed more women than elected them sheriffs.
Mayors? Only six of the 28 largest cities such as Charlotte and Asheville have woman mayors and few otherwise. Indeed, when it comes to women in power positions, historically Asheville is the one-off exception in North Carolina. Yet we like women involved in health, social services, tourism and education, and also on lots of “advisory” boards, but let’s keep them in nurturing and touchy-feely positions appropriate to the “weaker” sex. Oh, yes, they’re fine as clerks of Superior Court and registers of deeds, largely administrative positions that require appropriate “skills.” Really now, when will Haywood County have women candidates for anything except clerks and registers?
Yet, would having a few more women as sheriffs, district attorneys or even state representatives make a difference? Or more than one on a board or else they’ll never be heard? Would things be better? Different? Would North Carolina be more progressive or conservative? Consider this. Overall, women represent the same spectrum of political views as men. Think Sarah Palin or Nancy Pelosi or Sue Myrick or Kay Hagan here. Would things go better?
Regardless of their parties, women generally tend to bring a different set of attitudes toward issues as well as meetings. For example, they often are more open, collaborative, cooperative, and, yes, even listening and transparent. Then, too, they commonly are more sensitive to issues focusing on the environment, social services, education and health care than men. Think the opioid crisis and family services here. Moreover, women might even have new proposals on health care that stymies our mostly male congressmen and state representatives in the General Assembly. Additionally, it seems that, if more women run for office, then so do more people of color and the young. Still, until North Carolinians elect and appoint more women to power positions, we’ll never know if things would change.
Last, let’s blame women for all this. Everyone does. After all, they won’t run, and this is a democracy, isn’t it? It seems that when women consider running for public office, they often do it while folding laundry or doing dishes, an internal debate few men have. But why so few? These days, we have embraced a modern form of mother-worship where we imagine all women want to be mothers. In truth, there likely is no intrinsic value to becoming or not becoming a mother, but we nevertheless exalt soccer, helicopter and tiger moms while, with ever-increasing abortion restrictions, we almost coerce women into motherhood, if temporarily. As such, women now face more socially and culturally restrictive roles than before 2015.
Additionally, with fewer women representatives as mentors or role models, especially in local offices that represent steppingstones, there are fewer in the political pipeline. Finally, prominent women who have served need to be more vocal about the importance of bringing women into the process. Let’s all make women reappear instead of disappear politically and the “year of the woman” commonplace and not just about 2018.
Retired UNC Asheville history professor Milton Ready lives in Tryon.