The good news: Oklahoma is now the 43rd worst state for women and no longer the 48th worst, which is what it was last year. The ranking comes from a WalletHub analysis, which calculated scores based on signifiers like unemployment rate for women, high school dropout rate for women, female uninsured rate and female homicide rate. Improvement aside, this state’s still not the best for ladies.
Now, it’s not all bad. It so happens that Oklahoma ranks first in the country in female elected representation. That’s because 42 percent of our elected officials are women. And with all those women running the show, surely there’s a bright future for the state, right? Not so fast.
When women do run for office and get elected, it is overwhelmingly to positions with less political power than the offices that men hold. We have lots of women who are county assessors, county treasurers, election board secretaries, county clerks and court clerks. When it comes to sheriffs or state senators, however, the number of women drops.
Ultimately, Oklahoma ranks 48th in the nation for female representation in legislature. By next year, we might drop to 50th since almost half of the current women in legislature termed out this year. What happened to no taxation without representation?
You may be wondering why this matters. One of the women we have in Legislature, Sally Kern, garnered national attention for her racist comments and push for bills to disenfranchise LGBTQ people. If women are going to insist that they still need more representation, why don’t they run more often? At the same time, if men and women are equal and can accomplish the same things, why would the genders of our legislators matter?
Although men and women are equally capable of holding office, they differ in their motivation for running. From the early 1970s to late 1990s, the number of women in elected positions increased fivefold nationwide. But the growth rate has dropped substantially since then. According to studies cited by the Center for American Women and Politics, women are less likely than men to have thought about running, to think that they’ll win or to receive encouragement from political actors.
This discrepancy is unwarranted, because when it comes down to actually getting elected, CAWP also says women are just as likely as men to win. And in general, men will apply for jobs even if they do not meet half of the qualifications listed, whereas women generally only try if they meet all or most of them. This means some of our few female candidates might be even more qualified than their male counterparts.
When asked, elected men say they ran because they generally envisioned themselves as politicians, whereas women typically only run when they feel that running will give them “the ability to effect change in society.” It looks like women also prize results over status, which, if you remember the rankings at the beginning of the article, is not surprising. They’re personally invested.
There is not, however, much evidence to support the idea held by more than a third of Americans that women are better at achieving compromise in government than men. It is true for Republican women, at least; they are better able to author and advocate bills that will receive bipartisan support because their policy positions are generally closer to those of the average voter. This is not true for Democrat women or Republican men.
Still, women bring different experiences to government, and that is valuable in and of itself. For the record, disproportionate representation applies to minority groups as well. According to census numbers, 7.4 percent of Oklahomans are Black and 8.9 percent are Hispanic. Meanwhile, 4 percent of the Legislature is Black and .7 percent is Hispanic. Without a representative legislature, unique perspectives will be lost. Communities that have already been silenced — regarding their pregnancies, reparations for the Tulsa race massacre and general safety, for example — don’t get to have a voice at the table.
An all-women legislature would not solve anything either. But at least this year, more women signed up to run. In 2016, more women filed to run for office in Oklahoma than in the last two cycles combined, with a grand total of seventy-seven women who ran and fifty-six who made it past primaries. In fact, more women and men filed to run for legislature this year than in any other year during the past decade. Even if the number of women running still isn’t proportionate to the population of women, more civic involvement is always a good thing for a self-purported democracy.
Above all, we can’t let incumbents keep their seats just because there are no other options. Especially when the returning legislators aren’t always representative of who Oklahoma is now.