By Cynthia Richie Terrell on October 10, 2015
By Kelsey Ryan
Once a leader in the number of women elected to office, Kansas is now in the middle of the pack for gender parity, according to a recent report.
Representation 2020, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, gives a gender parity score to each state. Kansas received 18.6 this year, placing it 24th overall nationwide. Last year, it was ranked 14th nationwide.
In 1993, Kansas was first in the nation overall for gender parity in elected office, according to the report.
It’s unclear why the number of women in elected office has declined since then.
The weakest area of the ranking comes in state government. The percentage of women in the Legislature has decreased from 29 percent in 1993 to 25 percent in 2015. Kansas now ranks 34th for state legislative gender parity.
For Rep. Gail Finney, D-Wichita, it’s a balancing act between running a business with her husband in Wichita and being a representative in Topeka. She was first elected in 2008.
“We could do a better job than the Legislature we currently have if we had more women,” Finney said, referencing the past legislative session, the longest in state history at 114 days.
It’s difficult to keep quality legislators because the pay is low and the job requires a significant amount of time, she said.
“A lot of the men are lawyers, retirees, ranchers or successful business people,” she said.
“Most women have families, and if they have jobs, what job lets you take off work 90 to 100 days a year? It makes it very difficult for women who are professionals,” Finney said.
Most of the women who are legislators in Kansas have older or grown children, she said.
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, is the highest-ranking elected woman in Kansas. Wagle started out in the Kansas House of Representatives in 1991 and was elected to the Senate 10 years later.
“When Kansans are in a voting box, they are not making a decision based on the sex of the candidate. They’re making a decision on whether or not that person can lead and whether they agree with that person’s views,” Wagle said.
She wondered if fewer women in Kansas are running for office than in the past. The Representation 2020 report does not look at that data. If more women know about Kansas’ lower ranking nationwide, perhaps more women will run for office, she said.
“I think women make great candidates and they make great elected officials,” she said, adding that the need to balance family and legislative time affects all elected officials.
“If you’re married, you need support of your spouse and your children. It’s part of the decision whether you’re the father or mother – you need the full support of your family before you run for an office that takes three months of your time away from home.”
She noted that the state Legislature has had more younger people elected in recent years. “Our average age has gone down,” she said.
Currently, none of the state’s six elected executive positions are held by women. The only one last year, Republican Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger, decided to not run for another term.
On the local level, two of the 13 cities in Kansas with populations over 30,000 have female mayors.
In Wichita, two of the six City Council members are women: Janet Miller and Lavonta Williams. The Sedgwick County Commission consists of five men.
“It is important for Kansas to reverse this decline and revamp effort(s) to recruit, train and elect female candidates,” the Representation 2020 report says.
“On the federal level, Kansas has much room to improve,” the report said. Kansas has no women in the U.S. Senate and only one of the four congressional seats is filled by a woman, Lynn Jenkins, R-Topeka.
Nationwide, women represent more than half of the population and electorate, but are under-represented in every level of elected office.
“The United States is ranked 95th in the world for women’s representation compared to 189 countries,” according to the report. “Only 20 percent of the U.S. Senate and 19 percent of the U.S. House of Representatives is comprised of women. At the state level, women hold less than a quarter of legislative seats, barely higher than in 1993. Women are even less likely to hold elected executive office positions, such as governor or mayor.”
Representation 2020 is a project of FairVote: The Center for Voting and Democracy, which focuses on “structural changes to make elections more participatory and representative at every level of government,” according to its website. The report does not look at other under-represented people in elected office.