By Guest Columnist MELITA EASTERS, founding chair and current executive director of Georgia’s WIN List
No doubt about it, women voters of all ages are the deciding factor in this election cycle as political pundits increasingly predict Georgia will move to a blue column in this year’s presidential contest for the first time since 1992.
Legislative seats and private sector leadership positions held by women are leading indicators for a strong progressive streak in Georgia, which is obscured by the fact that all statewide offices and the majorities in the House and Senate are currently held by Republicans, who are predominately pale and male.
Georgia women have an 82 cents on the $1 wage gap compared to male colleagues. The gap widens to 63 cents for African American women and 48 cents for Latinas. Equal pay is a major issue for women voters who are also concerned about gun violence, job training, education issues, paid sick and family leave and access to reproductive health care.
Many are surprised to learn Georgia leads the Deep South for the highest percentage of women legislators. Georgia also has the highest number of African American women legislators for any state in the nation, based on nationwide information collected by the Center for American Women in Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University. House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams is the first woman to lead either party in Georgia legislative history.
Georgia’s legislature is comprised of 24.6 percent women, with a CAWP national ranking of 27, ahead of all other Deep South states and just a few spots behind Florida (not traditionally seen as part of the Deep South) at 24. With 23 percent women, North Carolina ranks 31st. But, in North Carolina and Florida, women legislators are almost equally divided between parties while in Georgia, Democratic women outnumber Republicans four to one in the Senate and three to two in the House.
Other Southern states lag far behind Georgia, with Alabama, South Carolina and Mississippi ranking 46th, 47th and 49th respectively, each having about 14 percent women legislators. The state of Wyoming is last in the nation and Colorado ranks first with a legislature that is 42 percent women.
Nationally, the 100-member U.S. Senate has 20 women currently serving, and the 435-member House has 84 women, for a proportion of 19.3 percent. There are currently six women governors and 12 women who serve at lieutenant governor. Women hold 24.6 percent of the nation’s 7,383 state legislative seats, according to the CAWP.
Just over 18 percent of American cities have women mayors. Of course, Atlanta was ahead of this curve with the widely acclaimed Shirley Franklin serving as mayor from 2002 to 2010 and neighboring DeKalb County had Liane Levetan as a female CEO from 1993 to 2000. Leah Ward Sears served as Georgia’s Supreme Court Chief Justice from 2005 to 2009, and at the time was the first ever African American woman to hold such a position in the nation.
An Atlanta attorney, Linda Klein, currently serves as president of the 400,000-member American Bar Association. She was elected in 1998 as the first female president of the Georgia Bar Association. Many prominent Atlanta law firms have had or currently have women as their managing partner.
There are other significant community leadership positions now held by women who have shattered glass ceilings. These women clearly demonstrate that not all of the state’s power structure is as pale and male those leading under Georgia’s Gold dome: Hala Moddlemog is CEO of The Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, Virginia Hepner is CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center, and Alicia Phillip is CEO of The Atlanta Community Foundation. This summer, Dr. Claire Sterk was named president of Emory University, shattering an academic glass ceiling for one of the state’s largest universities.
Currently, Georgia is one of only three states with no woman in statewide office or Congress, though a few women have served in both capacities. Georgia has never had a woman governor, lieutenant governor or attorney general. While the first woman to serve in the U.S. Senate was from Georgia, Rebecca Latimer Felton was appointed to serve for only a day in 1922.
More than 16 years ago, a group of women who wanted to promote the election of more women to statewide office and legislative seats convened in a series of meetings around my dining room table. At the time, Georgia had fewer than 20 percent women legislators and ranked 31st in the nation. Georgia’s WIN List was modeled after the national political action committee, EMILY’s List, which has been a monumental force behind Hillary Clinton’s campaign and efforts to flip with U.S. Senate back to Democratic control in the current election cycle.
Georgia’s WIN List has helped elect and re-elect more than 50 women to the Georgia General Assembly, 30 of whom currently serve. We recruit and train future women leaders and believe as we increase the number of women in the General Assembly or local offices, we build a bench of highly qualified women who will be effective and electable candidates in future Congressional and statewide races.
Four new WIN List-endorsed Democratic women legislators have already been elected earlier this year, including Brenda Lopez, who is the first Latina to serve in the legislature. Further, two more endorsed women hope to “flip” seats from Republican to Democratic control in November. Even as we focus on electing these new faces and protecting our valued women incumbents, we are already planning who amongst our currently endorsed women leaders will seek higher office and when they will run.
The WIN in our name certainly sums up our hope that the women whom we encourage to run will win on election day, but it also affirms out belief that Women In Numbers can elect Women in Numbers. After all, when women vote, women WIN!
Note to readers: In addition to her position with Georgia’s WIN List, Melita Easters is a former journalist and television producer who has also written several plays about literary figures produced locally and throughout the Southeast. She has served on numerous community boards during her three and a half decades in Atlanta.