Groups set out to im­prove sta­tus of women

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - REGION - BY JOAN MCCLANE STAFF WRITER

Sev­eral lo­cal women’s groups, en­er­gized by the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural cli­mate, are band­ing to­gether in an ef­fort to el­e­vate the sta­tus of women in Ten­nessee and get them into elected of­fices.

A re­cent re­port by the In­sti­tute for Women’s Pol­icy Re­search named Ten­nessee one of the worst states in the coun­try for women. Af­ter com­par­ing data on em­ploy­ment and earn­ings, poverty and op­por­tu­nity, health and well-be­ing, vi­o­lence and safety, re­pro­duc­tive rights and po­lit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion, Ten­nessee was ranked 49th in the U.S., ty­ing with Ken­tucky. Only Alabama and Mis­sis­sippi fared worse in the data anal­y­sis.

The find­ings were so trou­bling they led the Women’s Fund of Greater Chat­tanooga to launch an ad­vo­cacy cam­paign, “49 to One,” to bring Ten­nessee women from the bot­tom to the top of the list, said Emily O’Don­nell, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the non­profit group.

“The pres­i­den­tial elec­tion brought a lot of at­ten­tion to women’s is­sues,” she said. “I know a num­ber of women who felt more in­clined to be po­lit­i­cal from both par­ties. … Across Chat­tanooga, there is a grow­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion among women not nec­es­sar­ily to iden­tify with one party or an­other but re­al­iz­ing that we want our voice to be heard.”

Re­vers­ing the low sta­tus of women in Ten­nessee won’t be easy, O’Don­nell said. A lot of grass­roots po­lit­i­cal work will need to be done.

Data sug­gests one of the big­gest rea­sons women aren’t thriv­ing in Ten­nessee is be­cause they are not well rep­re­sented in the state’s cap­i­tal.

Only 66 per­cent of women are reg­is­tered to vote in Ten­nessee, ac­cord­ing to the In­sti­tute for Women’s Pol­icy Re­search, and only 44.7 per­cent of women vote. In the state Leg­is­la­ture, women hold just 17.4 per­cent of the seats, even though women rep­re­sent more than half of the state’s pop­u­la­tion.

Still, Ten­nessee women have made some progress in the last decade, ac­cord­ing to the re­port. Since 2004, the per­cent­age of women reg­is­tered to vote jumped al­most 2 per­cent and the per­cent­age of women who voted jumped 2.2 points. The num­ber of women in elected of­fice in­creased slightly, as well.

“For us to be 49th says a lot about how our men and chil­dren are fair­ing also,” O’Don­nell said. “You can’t have a state where women are 49th and men and chil­dren are thriv­ing. When women aren’t do­ing well the whole so­ci­ety isn’t do­ing well.”

In ad­di­tion to the “49 to One” cam­paign, the League of Women Vot­ers is re­viv­ing its lo­cal chap­ter, and the city of Chat­tanooga Mayor’s Coun­cil for Women is host­ing a statewide women’s pol­icy con­fer­ence on Feb. 9 at the Westin ho­tel.

“The time has come for women across the state to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for the pol­icy de­ci­sions that im­pact them and their fam­i­lies,” said Carol

Berz, city coun­cil­woman and con­fer­ence chair­woman, in a state­ment. “This con­fer­ence is an­other way the Mayor’s Coun­cil is bring­ing women to­gether to dis­cuss gen­uine so­lu­tions to the real prob­lems fac­ing all women.”

An­other group has formed a po­lit­i­cal ac­tion committee to re­cruit, train and sup­port women who want to run for of­fice in Hamil­ton County.

April Goebeler, co-founder of Em­power Women PAC, said while more women are needed in Nashville, they’re needed in lo­cal seats of power, too.

In Soddy-Daisy, for ex­am­ple, there are five elected city

of­fi­cials and none are women, she said. Out of nine Hamil­ton County com­mis­sion­ers, there is only one woman, and nei­ther the city nor the county has ever been led by a woman.

“The num­bers are re­ally bad,” Goebeler said. “Once you get women to the polls they are equally as likely to be elected as men. We just need women to step up to the plate and run.”

The prob­lem, she said, is that women aren’t asked to run for of­fice and of­ten don’t be­lieve they are qual­i­fied. That is why just 20 per­cent of elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives na­tion­ally are women. Demo­cratic women ac­count for 15 per­cent and Repub­li­can women ac­count for 5 per­cent.

Still, their ef­fort to draw more women into pol­i­tics is non­par­ti­san, she added.

“It’s par­ity over party,” Goebeler said. “Women make good de­ci­sions. They are good col­lab­o­ra­tors. They reach across the aisle. They com­pro­mise. … We need more women to be push­ing through a leg­isla­tive agenda that is im­por­tant to women be­cause we are 51-52 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion in Ten­nessee.”

Like O’Don­nell, Goebeler said the PAC is work­ing to gal­va­nize women who re­main frus­trated by the tone of the

most re­cent pres­i­den­tial elec­tion and feel em­bold­ened by the suc­cess of the #MeToo move­ment, which con­tin­ues to up­end work­place norms as celebri­ties, politi­cians and busi­ness­men are outed for sex­u­ally in­ap­pro­pri­ate be­hav­ior.

“Don­ald Trump’s cam­paign re­ally fired up a lot of women on both sides,” she said. “A lot of Repub­li­can women were very off put by some of the things that were said dur­ing the cam­paign. … I know a lot of women who are pro-life who marched at the women’s march. It’s not about par­ti­san­ship. It’s about women and women be­ing treated cor­rectly and not be­ing sex­u­ally ha­rassed and sex­u­ally as­saulted and hav­ing equal pay and hav­ing ac­cess to birth con­trol and health care.”

So far, sev­eral women have ex­pressed in­ter­est in run­ning for lo­cal of­fice, Goebeler said. Hamil­ton County res­i­dents go to the bal­lot box three times this com­ing year, and with a lot of po­si­tions up for grabs, 2018 could prove to be a turn­ing point.

The Em­power Women’s PAC plans to hold train­ing ses­sions to help any in­ter­ested fe­male can­di­dates un­der­stand the ins and outs of run­ning for of­fice. It is also work­ing to re­cruit younger women who can work as cam­paign vol­un­teers and pre­pare for their own po­lit­i­cal ca­reers.

It is also dis­cussing other ways it can of­fer sup­port to

“Don­ald Trump’s cam­paign re­ally fired up a lot of women on both sides. A lot of Repub­li­can women were very off put by some of the things that were said dur­ing the cam­paign.” — APRIL GOEBELER, CO-FOUNDER OF EM­POWER WOMEN PAC

fe­male can­di­dates. Of­ten, women are jug­gling work and the role of pri­mary care­giver, Goebeler said. So lo­cal women may need to wrap around fe­male can­di­dates by of­fer­ing child care and even frozen meals, she added.

“We want to elim­i­nate bar­ri­ers,” Goebeler said.

One big bar­rier was elim­i­nated sev­eral months ago when Ten­nessee launched its first on­line voter reg­is­tra­tion system, said Kel­ley El­liott, statewide civic en­gage­ment co­or­di­na­tor for Civic TN, a lo­cal non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion work­ing to pro­mote col­lab­o­ra­tions that can bol­ster civic en­gage­ment across the state.

Women and men in Ten­nessee have long been deeply dis­en­gaged in the po­lit­i­cal process. In fact, El­liott said, Ten­nessee ranks 50th in voter par­tic­i­pa­tion in the coun­try.

That may change, how­ever, if women’s groups con­tinue to work to­gether and take ad­van­tage of the mo­men­tum of the mo­ment.

“I have been in this for a while but I have never seen this much in­ter­est,” El­liott said. “A lot of peo­ple want to get en­gaged right now. It’s great.”

In Alabama, where a Demo­crat was elected to the U.S. Se­nate for the first time in decades, women and black vot­ers showed up in record num­bers and il­lus­trated the power their shared voice can wield.

“Women are pulling us back to the is­sues that unite us, hav­ing health care for your fam­ily, hav­ing qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion, hav­ing liv­ing-wage jobs so you can pro­vide, hav­ing the things that com­mu­ni­ties need to be healthy,” El­liott said. “They are tran­scend­ing party and par­ti­san pol­i­tics. Women are the ones that will do it.”

Con­tact staff writer Joan McClane at jm­c­clane@times freep­ress.com or 423-757-6601.

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