Despite Gains, Women Remain Far From Political Parity In Frankfort

Feb 27, 2017

When it comes to the percentage of women breaking the glass ceiling in the state legislature, Kentucky continues to lag behind the national average. But there are reasons to think the numbers could be on the move in the coming years.

According to numbers published this month by the National Conference of State Legislatures, just under a quarter of seats in statehouses across the country are occupied by women, a stubborn statistic that hasn't budged much in years. In Kentucky, the number currently sits at just 16.7 percent, a figure decried by Democrats and Republicans alike.

Louisville Rep. Attica Scott is an alumna of Emerge Kentucky, an initiative designed to mobilize Democratic women candidates. In 2016, the program boasted a 61 percent success rate among graduates seeking office, or 14 out of 23 candidates.

"I see that as a sign of hope for getting more women in the legislature, but right now it's pretty dismal," she says. "We're almost less than ten percent of the national average, which says a lot about the state of Kentucky, so both political parties have some work to do to get more women in office."

While Scott, the first African-American woman elected to the legislature in nearly two decades, says she feels welcome among her mostly male colleagues, she notices a clear deficit in women promoted to leadership roles, such as majority and minority floor leaders, along with committee chairs and vice chairs.

Emerge and its Republican counterpart, Kentucky Strong, did successfully move the needle in the General Assembly in 2016, sending two lawmakers each to the legislature last November, but Strong executive director Sen. Julie Raque Adams says serious progress won't materialize without more one-on-one dialogue that recognizes the different needs of potential candidates.

"Some people don't even know what it entails and they write it off automatically, thinking oh, well I can't do that because of the time commitment or because of my family," she explains. "And really, honestly, what it entails is just sitting down with that person, saying here's what it means."

And that often means customized help with navigating practical problems that arise.

"I think curriculums are great and we do do a lot of that, but also there's some day-to-say aspects that are new every election, so we're kind of a group that will help work through those types of nuances that are different in every district," the Louisville Republican says.

Meanwhile, the best recruiter in the short term - at least for Democrats - might be sitting in the Oval Office.

"I already see the change," Scott says. "People are moving from rallies to action. They're showing up in the Capitol, coming to committee meetings, contacting their legislators, going to school board meetings. I met someone at a school board meeting in Jefferson County who said that was their first time going. But they went to the Women's March in D.C. and were inspired to take action locally. So it's already happening."

Lexington's sister march, held in solidarity with the action in Washington, drew roughly 5,000 demonstrators. Whether that translates to more victories at the ballot box, only time will tell.