These women running for governor could make Tennessee history

The Tennessee flag, adopted in 1905, includes three stars that represent the grand divisions of the state: East, Middle and West.
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Tennessee, like 27 other states, has never chosen a woman to serve as governor. 

When U.S. Rep. Diane Black entered the race last week, she became the third top-tier female Republican candidate to try and end that streak.

MORE: Meet the candidates for governor

Joined by House Speaker Beth Harwell and state Sen. Mae Beavers, all three have a legitimate shot to make history and become Tennessee's 50th governor.

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In previous elections, women who have run for governor have not had the same name recognition or political experience as Black, Harwell and Beavers, making it far more difficult to pose a serious challenge to the eventual winners. 

Democrat Jane Eskind was the first woman to win a statewide election, earning a spot in 1980 on the Public Service Commission after a hotly contested primary.

Other women to hold statewide office in Tennessee include Jeanne S. Bodfish, who was comptroller from 1953 to 1955 and, Mary Carr, who served as secretary of state from 1944 to 1945. Neither post is directly elected by Tennessee voters, though.

'Never out of the equation'

While this year's three gubernatorial candidates are downplaying their gender as part of their campaigns, national experts say it will play a role in the race.

"Gender is never out of the equation," said Adrienne Kimmell, executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, a Massachusetts-based organization that seeks to advances women's equality and representation in politics. "It is always a factor in terms of how the race plays out, how the media covers the race and how voters perceive the candidates."


Kimmell said female candidates, especially those seeking executive office, face different obstacles than their male counterparts, ranging from the complexity of inherent voter biases to the simplicity of lecterns built for men.

Kimmel said female candidates must prove their qualifications and likability, something male candidates don't have to do because men typically are viewed as qualified as soon as they enter the race.

"A woman really needs to be more illustrative," Kimmell said.

Oftentimes women must also be encouraged to run for office, said Katie Ziegler, program manager at the National Conference of State Legislature's Women's Legislative Network, which monitors the number of women in legislatures around the country.

Female candidates often are asked more questions about their families than their male competitors.

"That is something that people definitely think of as a factor," Ziegler said. "Whether that's caring for children or parents of other relatives."

Voters can be hesitant to vote for women with young kids so the ideal female candidate is roughly 55 years old with grown children, Kimmel said.

"Voters are worried who you are going to pay attention to, their kids or me," she said.

Kimmel said also research has shown that voters are more likely to vote for women to be a member of a deliberative body like Congress than to be the chief executive of a state.

“Voters are more hesitant to elect a woman as the decision-maker versus a decision-maker,” she said.

Advantages

Women candidates, however, connect better with voters on a personal level. 

"In terms of our research, one of the advantages that women candidates hold over their male counterparts is seeming more in touch with voters and their everyday lives," Kimmel said.


Women are viewed by voters as problem solvers, as well as more honest and ethical, all of which can give them an advantage while campaigning.

Black, Harwell and Beavers have combined to win a combined more than 30 elections to state office or Congress, routinely defeating men.

“Some of those reservations which people might have, these women seem to have countered with their experience,” said Susan Carroll, senior scholar at Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics, referring to the trio of Republican women in Tennessee's race. 

From the 19th Amendment to today

The United States had its first female governors in 1925, when Wyoming and Texas voters elected Nellie Tayloe Ross and Miriam "Ma" Ferguson, respectively, to replace their husbands. Ross won a special election to succeed her husband who died, while Ferguson was elected after the impeachment and conviction of her husband.

Their elections came just three years after women gained the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment — the Tennessee legislature's vote put the bill's ratification over the top. Today, experts say the fact that so many states have yet to elect a female governor is an indication of the uphill battle women face.

"It takes a very long time for people to change their views and their stereotypes and their unconscious biases that both men and women hold around women’s ability to serve in this very public space," said Kimmell.

The country saw a high point of nine women governors serving at once between 2006 and 2008 and then again in 2009. Today, there are six female governors.

Although there are about 1,850 female state lawmakers across the country, a record number, the increase of female lawmakers has been slow.

Current totals represent about 24.8 percent of all legislators across the country, Ziegler said, up slightly from 20 percent in 1992.

"It really does take dedicated attention to recruiting women," said Ziegler.

Throughout the country, several organizations have popped up in recent years, including VoteRunLead, which holds workshops to help recruit female candidates.

“All the attention to national politics has piqued the interest of more women to run for office,” said Carroll.

Around the country, there are several women running for governor, including four in Minnesota, three in Ohio, and two each in Maine, Iowa, Georgia and Colorado, according to the Barbara Lee Foundation.

Erin Vivaldi, who founded VoteRunLead, a national non-profit organization that encourages and trains women to run for office, said the campaigns of Black, Harwell and Beavers in the race will be watched by political insiders around the country.

While all three have their own unique qualifications, Vivaldi noted the difference between the trio and the two businessmen — Williamson County businessman Bill Lee and Knoxville entrepreneur Randy Boyd — in the race. The fact Lee and Boyd have no elected experience, compared to decades of combined experience between Black, Harwell and Beavers, provides a stark contrast for voters. 

Vivaldi offered a bit of advice to voters.

"Do your homework," she said, adding voters should take a close look at the resumes and qualifications of all the candidates in the race and not simply vote for someone because they are a male or female.

Dave Boucher contributed to this report.

Reach Joel Ebert at jebert@tennessean.com or 615-772-1681 and on Twitter @joelebert29.

Here's what each of the three female candidates running for the Republican nomination for governor told the USA TODAY NETWORK-Tennessee about being a woman in the 2018 race:

Diane Black

“I’ve never used my gender while running for any of the offices that I’ve run for previously because I feel like I have enough credentials to just run on my own. I trust the voters of Tennessee to make a decision on the best candidate despite our gender.”

On potentially becoming the state’s first female governor:

“It would be truly historic but I will tell you even more historic to me is to know that I would be the 50th governor of the state of Tennessee. That is the history that we would make.”

Beth Harwell

"I want any Tennessean that cares about having a well financed state, a fiscally managed state and cares deeply about state government that understands its important to have a state government that’s condusive

On potentially becoming the state’s first female governor:

“I don’t think anyone should vote for me because I am a woman but I would tell you the historical significance is great. And it’s especially so because in the year 2020 this state will celebrate a hundred years of being the state that made it possible for women to earn the right to vote. I think it’d be nice to have a female governor at that point.”

Mae Beavers

“I’m not running because I’m a woman. I’m running because I want what’s good for the state of Tennessee. I never even dreamed of running for governor much less tie that to being a woman. I’ve always felt that as a woman we could do whatever we wanted to do. It’s not too much different than a man running except a woman has a lot of household duties that she’s probably responsible for that men don’t.

On potentially becoming the state’s first female governor:

“Of course it would have significance. It would kind of be overwhelming I would think. But it’s all about doing what’s right for the state of Tennessee.