Iowa Could Send Its First Woman to Congress; Slim Prospects in Mississippi

Last week, I wrote about gender parity by state in the U.S. Congress. One of the more astounding facts from that research was that the United States ranks 77th in the world by percentage of legislative seats held by women.

Another fascinating tidbit though was that 4 states have never sent a women to Congress at all: Iowa, Mississippi, Vermont, and Delaware. While Vermont and Delaware have had a female governor, but never a representative in Congress, Iowa and Mississippi have not had either to date.

In the first part of a two part series, I will take a closer look at overall gender parity in the elected offices of Iowa and Mississippi beyond the congressional lens to their state level. Are there any opportunities in either state to break this streak in 2014?

 

Iowa has struggled with equal representation of females throughout its history. Aware of this deficit, the state has taken an innovative approach to address its shortcomings.

In 2009, it became the first state in the U.S. to pass a gender balance law to require gender-balanced membership on both the state and local appointed boards, commissions, councils, and communities. Research on the implementation of the law has found that women now hold 28.77 percent of the county boards and commission seats, and almost 50 percent of the counties studied have achieved full gender balance.

On city commissions, women hold 37.15 percent of seats and almost 50 percent of these, too, have achieved full gender equality.

One county supervisor, who achieved equality in Johnson County, was lauded for the success of the law there, but admitted there was still work to be done. The Supervisor Chairwoman Janelle Retting noted that “It’s an ongoing struggle, if you don’t try, you will never get there.”

Women in the Iowa Legislature, which has no such gender parity law, make up almost 25 percent of total representation, with 20 percent in the Senate and 25 percent in the state House. None of the 5 largest cities has had a woman mayor.

Some of these women at the state level are looking to the national scene next. In 2012, Christie Vilsack, the wife of the former governor of the state, ran in the 8th Congressional District, but lost by 8 percentage points. While she came closer to the seat than many other women, the female field is more crowded than ever.

Anesa Kajazovic, who serves in the State House of Representative, was the youngest women to be an elected member of the Legislature and she is now running for Congress to parlay her success at the state level to the national arena.

Monica Vernon and Swati Dandekar are also interested in the same seat on the Democratic ticket. Jane Ernst, a state senator, has also announced her intention to run for the state’s open Senate seat on the Republican side, which is encouraging for the level of female participation in the primary process.

At the congressional level, Staci Appel, a former state senator, is running in the 3rd Congressional District to replace retiring congressman Tom Latham. Meanwhile, Marianette Miller-Meeks, who is the former director of the State Department of Public Health, is making a third bid for the 2nd Congressional District seat, which is now held by Dave Loebsack.

With so many women in the primaries, many in the state are optimistic one will see her way to Washington, D.C.

Particularly, Iowa 50/50 in 2020 is hoping for a female victory. They are a bipartisan organization which actively encourages women to run for open seats and also runs a campaign school to help prepare women for the trail. Their goal is by 2020 to see political equity in their state, just in time to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the country.

 

Mississippi is another state that has struggled with female representation at both the state and national level. Mississippi has consistently ranked near the bottom of all states for its gender equality at the state legislative level. Three special elections in 2013 saw female victories, which brought the state closer to the national average.

Currently, the state now has 30 women between both state legislative bodies, which equates to about 17.2 percent of the total number of state legislators.

Mississippi has had a female lieutenant governor, Amy Tuck, who many think may be eying a run in the Senate if the incumbent, Thad Cochran, does not decide to run for re-election, although she has not announced a run yet.

Two women are running in the 4th Congressional District: Trish Causey, on the Democratic ticket, and Cindy Burleson, who is running as an independent. Other upcoming seats for 2014 though look to be safely protected by male incumbents, and the governorship will not be up for election until 2015.

Women who have run for state office in Mississippi acknowledge additional challenges they have faced during the campaign which includes questioning a woman’s competency, her personal and family relations, and asking questions they would never ask men, such as “who’s taking care of your kids?”

Former Greenville Mayor, Heather McTeer noted that “people will question everything.”

While no Mississippi-specific organization is working on improving gender equality in the state, national organizations like The League of Women Voters and Emily’s List have supported Mississippi women in the past.