According to pre-election data from the National Conference of State Legislatures, Oklahoma is in the bottom six states for percent of women in legislature. Following the election, the percentage dropped even lower.
Combining both legislative bodies, Oklahoma has 19 women holding office, 13 in the House of Representatives and 6 in the Senate, making up 12.7 percent of the total available seats. The next two states are Mississippi with 23 female legislators making up 13.2 percent of the seats and Wyoming with 12 legislators making up 13.3 percent of available seats.
Recently elected first-term Oklahoma Representative Carol Bush was able to provide context for these numbers. Bush won in the primary against male incumbent Ken Walker, and won District 70 in the general election by 60 percent of the vote. The 2017 legislative session starts on February 6. Until then, Bush and the remaining freshman class (roughly one third of the entire House) are meeting with interest groups, government departments and nonprofits, all of whom are attempting to catch new legislators up to speed.
The first barrier to women in office in Bush’s view is that “You have to have extremely thick skin.”
“I think it’s different for women because we’re nurturers and pleasers. We want to make everyone happy,” Bush said. “Politics is mean. It’s a dirty nasty business.”
However, Bush thinks it isn’t something women should shy away from. “My opinion is that women can get stuff done. We’re a lot easier to compromise with. We speak a different language … All of us talking all of the time. You know the nuts and bolts. We don’t need to throw mud. We just want to get it done.”
Bush compared the atmosphere of the House floor to a fraternity. For Bush this atmosphere was nothing new. “I’ve always worked in a man’s world. My first husband owned a bike shop. Then I worked with cops. I’ve never known what it’s like not to work with men,” she said, but noted that “if you haven’t worked in that environment, it’d be a bit overwhelming.”
Bush has had various careers throughout her life, but she never considered political office until recently. After 10 years at the Crime Commission Bush was burned out. “I mean super burned out … I just couldn’t do it anymore and I didn’t quit that job to run for office, but to take care of my parents.”
“My dad died a month later and at that time I had to take my last daughter off to college. And at that time Jeannie McDaniel, who is an incredible legislator but terming out, she called me.” McDaniel was a former director of the Crime Commission before Bush, and tried to convince her to run for office. Bush seriously considered it and eventually teamed up with the Women’s League and Sally’s List, two organizations that hope to empower female politicians, who helped her find a campaign consultant and practice door knocking.
When it comes to campaigns, “the most fun and most intimidating for most people was door knocking. I absolutely loved it. Was it exhausting? Yes, but I knocked on 11,000 doors,” Bush said. Many times when she knocked on doors, people would ask who their current representative was, and promise to vote for her simply because she showed up, or because she was a woman. Most didn’t even bother to ask where she stood on the issues.
Bush’s campaign consultant warned her to expect a four to five percent boost in votes simply because of her gender.
“I think some people voted for me because I was a woman. I think there were some sexist guys there that thought ‘she should be home having babies and cooking dinner.’ I know people voted for me because they know me from fighting crime with the Crime Commission. I know people didn’t vote for me because of my crime fighting.” Bush thought the background people came from affected how they voted, and they really didn’t drill down into examining her platform.
Bush was saddened by the lack of general awareness among voters. “Your state legislature is making decisions that affect you everyday… more so than DC is, and really more so than even your city council or mayor are. There is a lot of power sitting over there in those seats.”
Voter apathy was tough to confront. More than any substantial question about her platform, Bush was asked what she thought she could possibly accomplish, as if the state were too messed up for anyone to be able to incite change.
Bush felt the attitude of the general election helped to further voters’ distrust of government and politics. “I understand the apathy. I understand the disillusionment. I got into this because I really wanted to make a difference. You don’t do it for the money.”
“At a state level, we are going to have to be very comfortable with doing the uncomfortable. We have got to make some serious, tough decisions that are going to really piss off a lot of people for the long term good,” Bush said.. “Do we have the guts to do that? I know how I’m going to vote on things. Will that make me a one-term representative? Maybe, but that’s the point.”
“We’re in this to actually make systemic change.”
Bush’s hope for this next legislative session is that legislators will realize the problems Oklahoma faces are not Republican and Democrat issues.
“We’re at critical mass, and all of us need to brave enough to stand up and say something, and fix it.”
However, “switching from candidate mode to legislature mode has been difficult.” Bush mentioned that throughout the campaign process she was thinking about the 38,000 people in her district. At one point State Treasurer Ken Miller asked Bush, “you realize that you’re one of 3.5 million people that makes the decisions in the state?” That was the ‘aha’ moment that made her realize the job she took on was more than she thought it would be.
Bush shared a positive outlook regarding what she and her fellow female legislators could accomplish. “These are smart, tough women,” Bush said of her colleagues, with emphasis on those who hold leadership roles. Some of these leaders include Leslie Osborn, Chair of House Appropriations and Budget and the first women to hold that position; Jadine Nollan, Chair of Higher Education and Assistant Majority Whip; Elise Hall, Majority Caucus Vice Chair and Assistant Majority Whip; and Katie Henke, Majority Caucus Secretary and Floor Leader. Bush also has a leadership role as Vice Chair of Health Services and Long Term Care Committee.
In addition, Bush praised Senator Kim David, Chair of Senate Appropriations and Budget, who is the first woman to hold that position in the Senate. “I think it is so cool. It’s the first time in Oklahoma history we have a female senator and a female representative heading the two biggest committees,” she enthused.
One of the primary reasons people cite for needing equal gender representation in government is that government is needed to address what are considered to be female issues. Bush’s general stance on the following topics? “Prevention, prevention, prevention.”
Bush said preventative measures could save Oklahoma money in many ways. One example: women’s incarceration rates. Of those women incarcerated in Oklahoma, many are in for petty crimes and nonviolent drug offenses. Bush said, “These are not bad women. We need to lock up those that hurt us, not those we are mad at.”
When it comes to health, “diabetes, obesity, smoking, all of these things that Oklahoma ranks so high in…those are diseases that are preventable.”
On prenatal care, pay for teachers and other state employees, preventive birth control and sexual health education Bush says, “all of these issues, if we would focus on preventing those, that would cost our state so far less. We just do treatment, and if they’re uninsured, if they’re poor, if they can’t pay their bills, guess who is paying for it?”
Bush’s concern is that party affiliation may play a heavier hand in deciding how to deal with these problems than open discussion will. “You just can’t lay down a law and enforce a law without having some dialogue about the reality of the law,” she said.
Her position on the Health Services and Long Term Care Committee helps her relate to the needs of those living in her district. “I respect them and they respect me … they know that I am going to bat for them.”
“They are trying to figure out how they are going to live because we are living longer on less income. How are their grandkids and great-grandkids going to survive? Those are things I can talk to them about and that’s our common ground.”
When it comes to Oklahoma’s future, and the future of its young women, Bush hopes today’s leaders can be an example. “It really hurts me to see girls who are not confident, and insecure and have low self esteem,” she said.
“Hillary said in her concession speech, you can do anything you set your mind to. That was the example I tried to leave for my daughters.”
“I would hope that more girls…could look at somebody in their community, not just someone on TV in Washington, DC,” as role models.
Bush said that what she hopes girls see when they look up to her is three-dimensional: “She made some mistakes, she did some great things and she’s done some bad things, but in the end her whole mission was just to do right and make the world a better place.”
Bush has been candid about her mistakes in life in an effort to show that “even if you’re in what seems like a bad situation, you can pull yourself out and make something of yourself, and your goal needs be, ‘How can I give back to the community I live in?’ ‘How can I make it a better place?’ How can I make it so that somebody else doesn’t have to go through this?’”
Bush also highlighted other female role models for girls in Tulsa, including City Councilwoman Karen Gilbert and 38th Mayor of Tulsa Kathy Taylor. “We as women in these leadership roles owe it to mentor and guide within the schools, churches, wherever these girls are, help them build their self-esteem and character so that they can become strong, independent, self-sufficient women that can make a difference.”
Bush is excited to be part of the 12.7 percent.
“I never dreamed I would do this. Ever since I was five years old I was going to be a criminal justice lawyer and I was going to solve cases of child neglect. Well, when I figured out I was never going to pass the LSAT, I switched over to business and marketing and opened my first business 9 months out of college. Within two years I had four stores.”
“I’ve had all these dreams that didn’t pan out, but now in my older years, at the age of 55, now that I look back, man I’ve had some wonderful opportunities to do some cool things.”
Bush has had eight different careers throughout her life and has done countless more in volunteer work, “but if I look back on it, it all lead to this point. Everything I’ve done has lead to this point, and I never ever thought I would be in politics or a leader in the state.”
“I wish more women would get into it. I wish more young people would have a passion for their community and giving back in this capacity. It’s so vitally important.”