GOP women look o make their mark in legislature
On the heels of an election that focused on female voters more than most, Republican women in the legislature turn to policy
For the first time in recent memory, more women in the General Assembly will be Republicans instead of Democrats when new lawmakers are sworn in next month.
But that doesn’t mean these female GOP lawmakers will fight for the same things their more liberal counterparts did.
An incoming GOP class that includes Senator-elect Janice Bowling and Representatives-elect Courtney Rogers, Dawn White, Mary Littleton and Debra Moody, along with the return of former Rep. Susan Lynn, will give Republican women a 12-11 advantage over Democratic women on Capitol Hill when they are gaveled into session on Jan 8.
Coming on the heels of an election in which gaps between men and women figured prominently in polls, messaging and outcomes, the new lineup gives GOP lawmakers a fresh chance to connect with all voters, but especially women. It’s an opportunity the newcomers are eager to embrace.
“I find that voters are appreciative of women in the legislature,” Lynn said. “We respond to their needs. We respond to what they ask for... We have a more attentive style.”
The change was bound to happen with the election of a 70-member GOP supermajority, said Speaker of the House Beth Harwell, R-Nashville.
It doesn’t, however, mean the percentage of women in the party are equal to that in the Democratic Party. In the House, eight of the 70 GOP lawmakers are female. That means roughly one in nine Republicans at the Capitol are female, compared with a one-in-four rate among Democrats.
“It’s not where it needs to be, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction,” Harwell said. “More women are interested in serving and getting elected.”
After years of being one of a handful of female GOP lawmakers, Harwell said the influx of conservative lawmakers shows that the party is capable of having women in leadership positions and not working against topics typically viewed as women’s issues.
“It really does do away with that myth,” she said.
Even with the GOP supermajority and an influx of Republican women in the state legislature, women and the issues many support still have strong ties to the Democratic Party.
Polls nationwide and in Tennessee show women are still at least as likely to support Democrats as Republicans. A Vanderbilt University poll earlier this year showed women who were registered to vote were just as likely to have voted for President Barack Obama as his opponent, former Gov. Mitt Romney, while men in the state were much more likely to vote for the Republican governor.
As campaigning for the general election trudged along, topics long defined as gender issues — birth control, abortion and even the definition of rape — figured prominently in several races nationally. But Republican lawmakers and leaders do not plan to spend much time on those issues during the coming legislature.
But even as the newly-elected Republican women may not adamantly promote policies stereotypically known as women’s issues, they contend that their views on them fall in line with the Tennesseans who elected them — male and female.
On topics like abortion, where some conservatives were accused of waging a “war on women” who supported it, some of the assembly’s female lawmakers led the way in restricting access.
The legislature in 2011 put a constitutional amendment on the 2014 ballot that would give Tennessee voters a chance to clarify that the state constitution doesn’t specifically protect abortion rights. It was sponsored by Sen. Mae Beavers, a Mt. Juliet Republican, who also sponsored controversial legislation this year that called for publicizing information about women obtaining an abortion. It was later scaled back to require doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges in hospitals.
When it comes to abortion, Republicans of both genders are doing what their constituents want them to, said Christy Sanford, the vice chairwoman of the Rutherford County GOP.
“We are very much in support of the sanctity of life,” Sanford said. “I think, as a whole, that’s pretty prevalent in the state of Tennessee.”
Several local GOP leaders, including Susan Wall, the president of Nashville Republican Women, said lawmakers like Harwell, who was first elected in 1988, paved the way for more active participation by women in the party.
“A lot of people saw what she did and thought, ‘I can do that, too,’” Wall said.
The changing dynamics of elections have brought not just more women, but younger mothers into the party.
“When I first started, there were a lot of older women,” Sanford said. “Over the last six to eight years, you’ve seen more women ages 20 to 40 get involved.”
Sanford said former state Republican Rep. Donna Barrett of Murfreesboro (formerly Donna Rowland), was another lawmaker who helped lay the groundwork for the incoming class of Republicans.
“It’s been great to see this legacy she left,” Sanford said.
In Lynn’s five previous terms in the General Assembly, she saw the number of women in the GOP grow since she was first elected in 2003. She said she and other GOP legislators, including now-U.S. Rep. Diane Black, were more than willing to fight about policies and perspectives not all of the male-dominated caucus saw as important.
“I know that we made a difference,” Lynn said. “We brought up issues that some of the men didn’t bring up. We stood strong and had a backbone.”
Harwell expects that type of fortitude to carry weight in the new legislative session. She said she is considering several women for leadership positions in committees and will propose new rules to try to organize and streamline the political process.
Harwell predicts that the focus will stay on more pragmatic issues, like improving the economy and education, rather than issues identified with gender. Women in the chamber are concerned about families, she said, and will be thinking about how to help them.
Lynn said that mentality will naturally lead her and her colleagues to focus on meeting the needs of all citizens in the state.
“Just because you’re a woman doesn’t mean you only focus on women’s issues,” Lynn said. “You just focus on the issues at hand.