Beth Harwell has shattered several glass ceilings in her lifetime. In 2001, she became the first-ever chairwoman of the Tennessee Republican Party. In 2011, after serving in the Tennessee House of Representatives for more than two decades, her colleagues chose her to become the first female speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives. On Thursday, August 2nd, she’s running in the Republican gubernatorial primary to become the first female major party nominee and the first female governor of Tennessee.
In the General Assembly, Harwell has pushed for conservative policies, including tax cuts and welfare reform. She has also been a strong advocate for victims of gender-based violence for her entire legislative career. As Speaker of the House, she oversaw the expulsion of a state representative for sexual harassment and instituted mandatory sexual harassment training for all Tennessee state legislature employees.
Harwell is running in a crowded field in the Republican primary. Her most notable opponents are current U.S. Representative Diane Black and businessmen Randy Boyd and Bill Lee. She is considered an underdog in the race; she’s been outspent by nearly all of her opponents. However, Harwell continues to campaign on her extensive legislative experience, which she hopes will sway voters. The winner of the Republican primary will almost certainly be elected in the November general election.
Tennessee currently ranks 40th out 50 states in RepresentWomen’s Gender Parity Index. The state has never had a woman governor, and only 15.6% of the legislators in Tennessee’s General Assembly are women.
Harwell stands out because women are often excluded from leadership positions in statehouses. She is one of only six women (and one of two Republican women) who serve as speaker of a state house nationally. She also previously served as chair of the House Commerce Committee, a position that women are often systematically excluded from holding. Unfortunately, few other women hold leadership positions in the Tennessee General Assembly. None of the fifteen standing committees in the Tennessee House are chaired by a woman. Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham is the sole woman to lead a committee in the Tennessee Senate. If the Tennessee GOP, which has a majority in the General Assembly, wishes to reach gender parity, they should not only recruit more women to run for office but also be gender conscious in selecting committee chairs.
Harwell recognized the historical significance of her campaign in an interview with the Tennessean:
“I don’t think anyone should vote for me because I am a woman but I would tell you the historical significance is great. And it’s especially so because in the year 2020 this state will celebrate a hundred years of being the state that made it possible for women to earn the right to vote. I think it’d be nice to have a female governor at that point.”
Indeed, if elected, Harwell will be in office on August 24, 1920, the 100th anniversary of Tennessee becoming the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment, officially enshrining women’s suffrage in the U.S. Constitution. We will be watching this race closely to see if this November— 98 years after women first obtained the right to vote— Tennesseans will get their first opportunity to cast their ballots for a woman governor.