The legacy of Texas’ last Democratic governor still looms large. Ann Richards, the shoot-from-the-hip governor who served one term in 1991, is a constant reminder that Texas Democrats need women to win. Richards daughter, Cecile, summed up in a recent article how that happens.
“[My mom] knew that women only got what they fought for—nothing more, nothing less,” she wrote in Glamour magazine last year.
During the time of her election, Richards was part of a wave of elected officials that transformed the political landscape and earned the title “Year of the Woman.” Women fought for and won political offices across the state. But since then, the percentage of Texas politicians who were women has ebbed and flowed, almost never exceeding the 20 to 25 percent mark among state executives and the state legislature.
In Congress, only three Texas women have been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives over a span of three decades between 1989 and 2016: Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee (D), Eddie Bernice Johnson (D) and Kay Granger (R).
But then Trump happened
In 2016, Trump, who had a history of degrading women, won the White House and triggered the number of American women who got involved in politics to reach its historical zenith. In Texas, three women— all Democrats— rode the 2018 tide to Congress: Veronica Escobar, Sylvia Garcia and Lizzie Fletcher. All three were the first women from Texas to be sent to the U.S. House in more than 20 years.
The solution to continuing the positive trend is, on the surface, deceptively simple: get in the game.
“Women are less likely to be approached than men are [to run for office],” Royce Brooks, the executive director for Annie’s List, told the Texas Signal. “There’s data that shows even from childhood, a teacher, a coach, a grandparent is much more likely to say ‘you should be in congress’ to a young boy than a young girl.”
That’s one reason why it takes a woman 7 times of being approached and recruited to run for office, she said.
Of the 65 Democratic Texas women who ran for office in 2018, Annie’s List trained or supported roughly four out of every five candidates.
“Research shows that when women are on the ballot, they get elected at similar rates to men,” Royce said. “A lot of the barriers come before women are even on the ballot.”
Plenty of women — again all Democrats— are making history by running for office at the presidential level this cycle, and here in the state. So far, two women, including a Latina, are running for U.S. Senate next year against John Cornyn.
A ways to go
There’s still real work to level the playing field. Even after the successful 2018 midterms, the Center for American Women in Politics ranked Texas 37th in the nation for proportion of women in the state legislature, a placement that reflects the fact that only 24 percent of lawmakers in the state are women. Half the population in Texas is female.
Voter perceptions of electability during a campaign — not ability while in office — is a hang up. A new report out Wednesday by progressive public opinion firm Avalanche shows “many voters may not need to be convinced that female a candidate is more capable — they must be convinced that Americans are capable of electing them.”
More fundamentally, closing the gender gap means continuing to change the culture, which reinforces political office as a male-dominant profession.
“We still have this confidence gap that starts early in life,” Nancy Bocskor with Texas Woman’s University told the Texas Signal. “I don’t think it’s ambition, I think it’s a reality check. I’ve done politics for a long time, rarely is a male candidate asked, who’s watching your children?”
Shannon Hutcheson, who is running to represent the Austin area in Congress next year, knows that drill.
“In the three weeks since I’ve been a candidate, I have had several folks, most of whom I think are well-intentioned, ask me how I can run for Congress when I have a teenage daughter at home,” she wrote on Facebook. “I reckon that if my husband were a candidate, this isn’t a conversation we’d be having.”
Bocskor, of TWU, said that in her work in training women to run for office, she often gets concerned comments from women who fear they’re not qualified to run for office.
She frequently points out that their necessary qualifications are the same as a man’s.
“All you have to do to be qualified is be a U.S. citizen and be the right age.”