Kansas lawmakers to honor women in politics as more line up for 2018 elections

photo by: Peter Hancock

Ponka-We Victors, left, D-Wichita, is the first Native American woman ever elected to the Kansas Legislature. The House and Senate plan to honor her and several other groundbreaking women in Kansas politics Monday as part of a Women's History Month observance. It comes at a time when more women are becoming politically active, both nationally and in Kansas.

? At a time when more women are getting actively engaged in state and local politics, Kansas lawmakers on Monday will honor a number of groundbreaking Kansas political women, many of whom are still serving in the Legislature.

“We’re going to be recognizing all the elected women in the state of Kansas, particularly those that are serving now, and recognizing those that have come before us,” Rep. Gail Finney, D-Wichita, said in an interview.

Although Kansas was among the first states to give women the right to vote when it passed a state constitutional amendment in 1912, eight years before ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, women have been slow to gain political power within the Legislature, particularly women of color.

Among those who will be recognized with a ceremonial resolution Monday are Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, who is the first woman to hold the top leadership position in either chamber.

Other notables include Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, the first African-American woman elected to the Kansas House without having been appointed first; Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, the first African-American woman elected to the Kansas Senate; and Rep. Ponka-We Victors, D-Wichita, the first Native American woman elected to the House.

Also being mentioned are former Rep. Delia Garcia, a Wichita Democrat who stepped down in 2010, who was the first Hispanic woman elected to the House; and former Rep. Donna Whiteman, R-Hutchinson, who in 1991 became the first woman to serve as majority leader in the Kansas House.

Currently, though, women hold only 32 of the 125 seats in the Kansas House, or 26 percent. Their numbers are slightly stronger in the Senate, where they hold 15 out of 40 seats, or 38 percent.

Among key leadership positions, however, both chambers are dominated by men, particularly in the House.

“It is exclusively male,” Finney said. “I’m hoping this time around, particularly in the House on the minority side, that we have a female run for every position. I would love to see that. I’m trying to encourage females to run for every position. And I think it’s something that we need to continue to do throughout the state.”

Officials in both major political parties say they are actively trying to recruit more women to run for state offices this year, but it may be too soon to say how well those efforts have been paying off.

According to a list of those who have officially filed to run in the 2018 elections, 26 women are already on the ballot to run for seats in the Kansas House. Those are split evenly between incumbents and potential challengers.

Kansas Senate seats are not up for election in 2018.

For statewide and congressional offices, however, far fewer Kansas women are getting involved, especially in the crowded race for governor, where Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, is the only woman so far who has announced plans to run.

Kelly is one of only four women so far who have filed any official paperwork to run for statewide office or for Congress. The other three, all state senators, include Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, who is running for secretary of state; Vicki Schmidt, R-Topeka, who is running for insurance commissioner; and Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, who is running for the 2nd Congressional District seat.

Two other Johnson County women have announced plans to run in the 3rd Congressional District but have not yet officially filed. They are Sharice Davids, of Shawnee, and Sylvia Williams, of Leawood. A third candidate, Andrea Ramsey, previously filed but has since withdrawn.

Francisco and Schmidt both said in interviews that it’s often difficult to recruit women to run for office.

“I think for women, there’s a lot of other things that come into play when and if they decide to run for office,” Schmidt said. “I don’t know why it is, but I’m always honored to be able to speak to any individual who wants to run for office.”

“Women certainly take on other responsibilities with their family,” Francisco said. “We may question whether we have the capabilities. So I often hear that women are more likely (to run) if they’re asked; less likely to initiate being involved on their own. It’s not an easy job.”

Officials in both parties, however, say they hope there will be many more to come before the June 1 deadline for candidates to file.

“As the Republican Party, and organizations that we work with, that’s been one of our focuses for the last handful of years,” Kansas GOP Chairman Kelly Arnold said in a phone interview.

Nationally, however, the 2018 elections are drawing what may turn out to be a record number of female candidates for state and federal offices.

According to a tally kept by Rutgers University’s Center for American Women in Politics, as of Friday, 490 women were lined up to run for the U.S. House in 2018, including 407 running either in open seats or as challengers against an incumbent.

Currently, women hold only 88 of the 435 seats in the U.S. House, or about 20 percent.

Finney said she thinks a cultural shift has occurred in the country within the past two years that is driving more women to run for office.

“The Women’s March movement, Me Too, all of that, I think, is all kind of coming together,” she said. “We’re realizing that, hey, we have a strong voice, and the only way that women will be able to get our issues heard is if more of us get more vocal about it, speak up about it and run for offices.”