"I'm just not ready to vote for a woman for governor."
Politics is funny that way. Arkansas was the first state to send a woman to the U.S. Senate - Hattie Carraway - during the Great Depression. It took us until 1992, though, to send a woman to Congress who wasn't first elected to fill out her dead husband's term. But that woman, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, was running against a veteran incumbent in the conservative eastern part of the state. Women didn't crack the state Senate until 1965, and didn't break double digits in the state legislature until 20 years later.
It's an area, too, with many fine lines for a woman to walk: How to act like a lady but fight like a man. How to champion issues important to women without being pigeonholed. How to reassure voters their husbands and children approve of their running for office without appearing to dignify the question.
Fisher, the 2002 Democratic nominee for governor, said she doesn't necessarily blame sexist voters for her loss to incumbent Mike Huckabee, but she thinks her gender was an issue, possibly with enough voters to make a difference. It's a fact, though, that while it's no longer unusual to find women at the top of just about any profession other than the church (some Protestant faiths excepted), they have barely managed to penetrate the upper echelons of elected office.
The disparity isn't just a matter of numbers, either. Women pay attention to different things, several women politicians said. States with more women lawmakers are more likely to address issues that are important to women, such as children and families, health care and education, said Janine Parry, gender and politics expert at the University of Arkansas.
Lincoln, the youngest woman and probably the only mother of toddlers ever elected to the U.S. Senate, puts it this way:
"I can look around that (finance committee) table and say, 'How many of you have had to pay for child care? How many of you have had to look for it? How many of you buy the milk?' "
Consider these statistics: Women make up 14 percent of Congress and 16 percent of the Arkansas legislature. (Nationwide, 22 percent of state legislators are women.) None of Arkansas's seven constitutional officers is a woman, although two were until recently: Fisher, the state treasurer for 22 years, and former Secretary of State Sharon Priest. Fewer than 20 women have ever served as governors, none of them in Arkansas; Fisher was the first woman gubernatorial candidate backed by a major party in the state's history. No woman has ever been elected to a leadership position in the state legislature, even with term limits theoretically making the playing field even.
At the lower levels of politics - school boards, city councils, quorum courts - there are more female faces, but still far fewer than you'd see in the audience at a meeting. In Arkansas, 22 percent of school board members are women, though their employees (mostly teachers) tend to be overwhelmingly female. The state Municipal League doesn't keep track of the members of every city and town council, but 14 percent of the state's mayors are women. Central Arkansas's leadership is fairly well diversified: Six of Little Rock's 11 city directors are women, as are half of Maumelle's eight. North Little Rock has only one woman on its seven-member city board, but on its seven-member school board, the women outnumber the men (four to three). (Little Rock's school board has two women and five men.)
The explanation for this isn't nearly as straightforward as plain old sexism. A study by the Center for American Women in Politics concluded that women candidates win about as often as men.
The problem, to borrow from an old political saw, is that women don't run early and they don't run often.
Experts give any number of reasons why fewer women than men ever assert themselves as candidates in the first place: Older women were taught from the cradle not to brag or call attention to themselves. Because there were so few sports for girls, they didn't have a chance to learn the kind of lessons about teamwork, competition and handling public defeat that boy athletes did. Women's lib notwithstanding, even younger women still carry most of the responsibility in the home, and don't feel as free as men do to take on a political career while they're still raising children. And women are still less likely than men to be plugged into the kind of political and business networks that are often responsible for recruiting and financially supporting candidates.
The results: First, women who do get involved in politics tend to run for lower-level positions like school boards and city councils, in part because they require less travel and time. Second, because women usually put off getting into politics until after their children are grown, women don't have as long to rise through the ranks.
"If they don't run for city council until they're 60, they'll probably never run for Congress because they don't have time to pay dues," Parry said.
Lincoln, of course, is the obvious exception to these rules. She was Blanche Lambert - single - and 31 when she first ran for Congress, and she had no prior experience as an elected official (she had plenty in politics, but on the staff and lobbying side). She married at the end of her first term in the House, and had planned to run for a third term even after she found out she was pregnant. Lugging a baby on flights from D.C. to Arkansas would be hard, she said she thought at the time, but doable. Lugging two babies, however, was out of the question, so when Lincoln found out she was expecting twins, she decided to take a break from politics.
Dale Bumpers' retirement kept the break short, though, and with her boys still in diapers, she ran a successful campaign for Bumpers' vacated Senate seat in 1998.
Lincoln said she makes sacrifices her colleagues don't have to. She does her networking during office hours, doesn't attend many evening functions and doesn't aim for a spot on the Sunday morning talk shows.
"I don't spend any more time than I have to with outside lobbying groups because I've got so much more to deal with," she said.
Lincoln said she remembers commiserating with a male colleague during her first term in the House about trying to balance work and family. "He said, 'You know what, you need a wife,' " Lincoln recalled. " 'Who picks up your cleaning? Who does your grocery shopping?' " I'm like, 'You're looking at her.' "
So imagine you're a girl, or a small group of girls, and you've clambered up the ladder to the all-boys' tree house club. Now what? Do you throw open the door and boldly announce your presence, or knock politely before entering? Once you're in, do you try to fit in by acting more like a boy - which could backfire by confusing and frightening the boys - or do you behave more as girls are expected to do, and risk having the boys courteously show you to a seat in the back and continue their business as usual?
That's the dilemma every woman politician faces, and each one interviewed for this story had a slightly different approach to handling it.
"No one likes an aggressive, pushy woman," says state Rep. Jan Judy of Fayetteville, who's now running as a Democrat for Congress from the Third District.
Nevertheless she always wears pants around men so she'll look like she's more a part of their world. "… Someone who's always there, always nice - you can be nice and still be assertive. That's what makes a good woman legislator."
State Rep. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, dresses as femininely as she pleases, but never gives anyone an excuse to call her a lady.
"The way we use 'lady,' especially in the South, means 'We have a place for you,' and that's not a place I'm willing to accept," she said. "I think it means you are to be quiet and speak when you have permission to speak, and you don't advocate for the rights of women, especially when it's unpopular."
State Sen. Mary Anne Salmon, D-North Little Rock, said women have to think more like men, at least some of the time.
"Maybe it's because I've been in politics so long - I just tend not to wait to be invited. I just go on and include myself. I don't think men are going to invite a lot. Men themselves don't wait to get invited."
The state Senate's seven women found themselves with a message to get across in the 2003 session, Salmon said.
"A time or two, men would get up to address the Senate, and would say, 'Gentlemen …' We finally got them trained to say 'ladies and gentlemen' or 'senators.' "
Politely, of course.
"We would clear our throats," Salmon said. "The seven women who were there were not hesitant to make themselves known."
None of the women said they'd ever been overtly treated differently or badly by a male legislator because of their gender, but they did acknowledge being patronized at times, and having to guard against being pigeonholed - shunted towards "women's issues" and away from discussions on more "masculine" subjects like taxes.
Elliott especially bristles at one event in the last days of the second special session earlier this year, when black and women legislators made a late attempt to enact tax reform instead of a sales tax increase that disproportionately affected lower-income Arkansans.
A white male lawmaker said publicly that the women and black caucus were " 'making trouble,' like we were children," Elliott said.
Women legislators need to be more aggressive in running for leadership positions, such as speaker of the House and chair of the party caucuses, she said. "I don't know how we can call ourselves leaders if we don't lead."
Elliott, who's running unopposed for a third and final term in the House, said the role of women is "so institutionalized, no one's even paid attention to the fact that we've never had a woman as speaker or an African-American as speaker."
Elliott also said anyone who thinks all women legislators vote the same way or hold the same positions on issues is laboring under a misperception.
Women politicians are disproportionately Democratic - about 64 percent Democrats to 36 percent Republicans in both the state legislature and the Congress - and they are more tuned in to issues that affect families. But just because women may want to put more women-oriented concerns on the table doesn't mean they'll want to solve them in the same way, or that they'll even all stand up for women's rights if necessary.
During Elliott's first term in the House, a bill that would curtail women's right to an abortion came up for discussion. The bill itself didn't disturb Elliott nearly as much as her fellow women legislators' reaction.
"I was more appalled when I was the first woman who had to stand up and speak against it, and I was a freshman," she said.
So what effect do women have on the legislative process?
A potentially profound one, the UA's Parry said.
Studies done by the Center for American Women in Politics show that states with a higher proportion of women legislators more often address issues that affect women - help for single mothers, children, the elderly. They may not actually get any laws passed, and the women don't always agree on the best way to solve the problems, Parry said, but they do at least talk about issues that more male-dominated state legislatures tend to ignore.
"We're talking about things guys hadn't traditionally talked about," Parry said.
Republican State Rep. Cecile Bledsoe of Rogers noted several examples from her six years in the House of Representatives: In the last session, legislators passed an increase in the beer tax that will fund childcare for single mothers. In the 2001 session, women lawmakers pushed a bill to tighten adoption laws after a highly publicized case in which both a birth mother and prospective adoptive parents traveled from other states to take advantage of Arkansas's then-lax laws. A law passed in the 1990s provides free mammograms for low-income women, and a second law passed several years later funds breast cancer treatment for those same women.
"Those are examples of things we work on as women that would be neglected if we weren't there," Salmon said.
Which brings us to the question of what happens once a woman passes the test of the polls.
There hasn't been much research into how women affect the legislative process itself, Parry said. One survey did find that women lawmakers reported themselves as paying more attention to constituent concerns, and as being more willing to compromise on bills.
And the jury's still out on women's effectiveness as lawmakers, Parry said.
"We do see signs," she said. "The total public money spent on education, preschool programs, health issues - there is a relation" to the proportion of women legislators in a state, Parry said. But there's no proof that "x is causing y," that more women equal a more generous investment in social programs. There's also the possibility of a "z factor," she said: that states where voters elect more women, citizens are also more interested in preschool and health care.
There's evidence that too many women lawmakers can cause a backlash, Parry said.
"Originally people thought that once a traditional out-group reaches a certain critical mass, they'll be taken seriously. They can have a real impact, spread out on committees. There was some evidence of that, but there's more recent evidence that suggests there's a second tipping point" - around 30 percent - "when the out-group gets big enough to be a threat, and the majority starts pushing back."
A lone but well-executed study of the Colorado legislature analyzed how men behaved at committee meetings in relation to how many women were on the committee and whether the chair or vice-chair was female.
"They found the opposite of what they expected," she said. "As the proportion of women increased, the males became more verbally aggressive, even if there was a woman chair or a woman witness testifying.
"A lot of people wanted to believe that … there's this critical mass, and then we'll all be equal, hooray."
But what about the possibility of a third tipping point - a high enough proportion of women legislators that they're no longer an "out-group" at all? Experts estimate that at the current rate of change, it will take anywhere up to 300 years for women to be proportionally represented in political office. (That would be just over half.)
There are ways to speed up that rate.
First would be reform campaign finance laws, particularly regarding the public financing of campaigns. Parry points to a kind of unintentional experiment with this in the city of Seattle, which passed a public-financing law but hasn't always had the money to fund it. During campaigns with public financing, many more women and minorities ran and were elected to local government, Parry said. The reason it's necessary, or at least helpful? Because women and minorities aren't as plugged in to the kind of networks that help candidates raise a lot of money. "They tend to be less likely to know people with resources," she said.
Political parties and community leaders must also specifically recruit female candidates.
"I'm not sure that women have taken the initiative to be that interested in what's going on," said Gayle Owens, a long-time Democratic activist in Little Rock. "Until something hits them in the face they don't get too involved in politics, unless they happen to be raised in it."
"[Women] tend to run when they are asked to run by elected officials and party leaders," she said. "Elected officials and party officials tend to ask men, and men run more often because they have more of a sense of entitlement to leadership. … Men need to understand what an incredibly influential role they can play in encouraging women to run. And they have a responsibility to do it, because all these years they've monopolized leadership positions."
She adds: "I didn't need it, and it's a good thing I didn't, because I didn't get it."
The third issue is equal treatment of women and men candidates in the media. Women candidates are quizzed about their private lives more often than men, the CAWP said. They get asked how their husbands feel about them running for office, or how they'll be able to serve without neglecting their children and families.
"They did ask that," Sharon Priest said of her first run for secretary of state in 1994. "In truth, there are not very many female politicians who are standing on a stage with their husband batting his eyelashes and looking adoringly at her. And they assume your husband's not supportive if he's not there."
Priest's son was still little when she first ran for the Little Rock board of directors in 1986, and she said some people would have blamed her political career if anything had gone wrong as he grew up.
"Had there been any problems it would have been because I was out tending to business I had no business being involved in," she said. "You don't hear that about men."
Term limits were supposed to increase diversity in the state legislature by putting an end to power monopolies. They had the opposite effect, at least in the short term: the number of women lawmakers dropped from 23 in 1997 to 18 in 2001. Five of the women legislators term-limited out were black; all five were replaced by African-American men. (At least one woman did make it into the legislature because of term limits, though: In 1998, Bledsoe was elected to replace then-Rep. Dave Bisbee, who went on to the Senate.)
The numbers bounced back in the 2003 session, with 22 women legislators - seven of them in the Senate, up from one in 1997. If women were proportionally represented, there would be close to 70 female legislators.
There are also the issues of what it takes to survive in politics: Ego and a thick skin. Women in their 30s and older probably didn't grow up playing sports, so they didn't grow up getting the kind of attention and adulation their male classmates did, Owens said. They also didn't grow up accustomed to losing, to taking the risk of coming in second place in a very public and possibly humiliating way, and they may be less willing, for their families' sake, to deal with the kind of personal attacks a campaign can bring.
"Politics can be a mean and nasty business," said Mary Dillard, a Little Rock political consultant. "That can be harder for women to deal with."
It's also harder to change, she said. No one's succeeded so far in pulling politics back toward civility, and socializing girls to be more egotistical and thick-skinned, if possible, wouldn't show dividends for decades. Girls do play sports more routinely now than a generation ago, but Parry said she doesn't count on that to result in a surge of women politicians in the future. It's more important that girls have women role models, that they're actively encouraged to enter politics as a way to make a difference.
As for Fisher, she said she may have another campaign left in her, either as a candidate or an organizer. And she hopes that her unsuccessful run for governor will hasten the day when another woman will run and win.
"I'd like to think," she said, "that I laid some groundwork."