Oklahoma has a female governor and was the first in the nation to elect a woman to statewide political office, but when it comes to electing women to the Legislature, the state ranks among the worst in the nation.
Only 12.8 percent of Oklahoma's 149 state lawmakers are women, ranking the state 48th in the nation based on membership before the 2012 elections, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. Oklahoma's ranking is unlikely to move as a result of this year's elections, since there were no net gains for women in the Legislature, which now has four women in the 48-member Senate and 15 females in the 101-member House.
“Obviously, given Mary Fallin is governor, it's not that voters won't elect a woman to office,” said Sara Jane Rose, the president and founder of Sally's List, an organization dedicated to electing progressive women to office in Oklahoma. “It's just that women haven't been running.
“If you sit at the right angle in the Senate gallery, you can't even see any women on the floor. I have no aspirations to run for office, but if I did, I would feel a bit overwhelmed by the lack of women down there.”
Oklahoma was assured its first female governor in 2010 after Fallin won the Republican nomination for governor and former Lt. Gov. Jari Askins secured the Democratic nod. Oklahoma has three other female statewide elected officials, all Republicans: State Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi and Corporation Commissioners Dana Murphy and Patrice Douglas.
Oklahoma also has a history of electing women to major posts. In 1907 — before women could even vote — Oklahoma became the first state in the nation to elect a woman to statewide office when Kate Barnard was picked for Charities and Corrections commissioner. And in 1920, Oklahoma Republican Alice Mary Roberts became just the second woman in the country elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Also, former Cherokee Nation Chief Wilma Mankiller was the first female chief of the Oklahoma-based tribe, a position she held from 1985 to 1995.
State Sen. A.J. Griffin, who was elected to her Senate seat during a special election earlier this year, said she believes part of the hindrance for women is a financial obstacle for professional women who are more likely to seek office.
“The financial burden that serving in the Oklahoma Legislature can place on a family kind of prohibits women who have achieved status professionally from making a political run,” said Griffin, R-Guthrie, who served as the director of a nonprofit agency before being elected.
Oklahoma lawmakers earn $38,400 annually, plus daily per diem and mileage reimbursement when the Legislature is in session.
Griffin, who has two children ages 14 and 11, said balancing a family with being a lawmaker also can be a challenge, especially for lawmakers who live outside of the Oklahoma City metro area.
“I'm fortunate that I live close to the metro,” Griffin said. “My colleagues in the Senate all have children, but their children are all adults.”
But Rose said she's found many women are hesitant to run simply because there's a perception that the Oklahoma Legislature is a “good `ol boys club.”
“It's just a matter of convincing women that they should run,” Rose said. “You also look at how negative campaigning has become, and that's often something that keeps them out. It's very ferocious, and that's not how a lot of women operate.”
Ruth Mandel, a founder of the Center for American Women and Politics and now the director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, said women have made tremendous political strides over the last several decades, growing from composing less than 5 percent of state legislatures in the early 1970s to about 24 percent nationally today.
“Overcoming that history is a slow, evolutionary process in our society,” Mandel said. “When we began to study this, the southern states had the lowest representations in state legislatures, and as things began to change … they began to change very slowly.
“We're going to see the same pattern of more participation over time, but the south was starting from a position far back and is still moving forward slowly.”
Sean Murphy can be reached at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy