Organizations recruiting more women for public office

Advocates say women bring a fresh perspective to policymaking.

By: - Monday December 26, 2022 7:30 am

Organizations recruiting more women for public office

Advocates say women bring a fresh perspective to policymaking.

By: - 7:30 am

Emerge Arkansas cabinet and committee members recently gathered for a meeting (from left to right): Allison Grigsby Sweatman, April Legere, executive director Stephannie Lane Baker, Erin Holliday, Kate Schaffer and Rep. Denise Ennett. (Photo courtesy of Emerge Arkansas)

Emerge Arkansas cabinet and committee members recently gathered for a meeting (from left to right): Allison Grigsby Sweatman, April Legere, executive director Stephannie Lane Baker, Erin Holliday, Kate Schaffer and Rep. Denise Ennett. (Photo courtesy of Emerge Arkansas)

The 2022 election is barely behind us, but Stephannie Lane Baker is already thinking about recruiting candidates, specifically women, for the next election cycle. 

“If we are going to make progress, we have to do the work year-round…that’s how you change the face of power in Arkansas,” she said.

As the executive director of Emerge Arkansas, a state chapter of Emerge America, Baker recruits women with Democratic ideals to run for office. While Emerge does not endorse candidates or provide funding, it does offer training for how to run a campaign. The goal is to increase representation in politics.

Emerge Arkansas executive director Stephannie Lane Baker
Emerge Arkansas executive director Stephannie Lane Baker (Courtesy of Emerge Arkansas)

“Women are underrepresented in leadership,” Baker said. “If you look at the Arkansas Legislature, we’re less than a quarter, but we’re about half the population, maybe more. In a representative democracy our leaders should look like the people they’re serving.”

Women represent 22% of the 94th General Assembly, which will first convene Jan. 9. There will be 30 women in the Arkansas Legislature, down from 31. Women make up just over half of the state’s population, according to the U.S. Census.

A record number of women, more than 32%, will serve in state legislatures in 2023, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. Colorado and Nevada will be the only two states where women make up at least half of their legislatures.

Although representation declined slightly in Arkansas, the state did elect women to serve as governor and lieutenant governor for the first time. But representation is about more than just gender, Baker said. It’s also important to elect leaders who will support policies that help women and families. 

“I love that little girls are going to see themselves reflected in leadership; I think that’s very important and I’m not diminishing that at all,” she said. “I don’t love that those women in power are not going to push forth policies that help those children looking at them.”

A 2018 Pew Research Center survey found that a majority of Americans would like to see more women in leadership positions. Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents who responded to that poll were twice as likely as Republicans and Republican-leaning independents to say there are too few women in high political offices. 

Most survey respondents also said men have an easier path and women have to do more to prove their worth. While 64% of Democrats said gender discrimination is a major reason why women are underrepresented, only 30% of Republicans agreed.

Recruit and train

Finding women who feel comfortable investing the time it takes to run a political campaign can be a recruitment barrier because it’s a big commitment when they have other responsibilities like caregiving and jobs, Baker said.

Sharon Lloyd, first vice president of the Arkansas Federation of Republican Women, agreed that timing is important because campaigning is time-consuming and emotionally draining.

“It’s very demanding and everything else is put on hold,” Lloyd said. “You need to be able to be in a time of your life that you can give 110%.”

The Arkansas Federation of Republican Women delegation sitting in chairs at the National Convention
The Arkansas Federation of Republican Women delegation at the National Convention in Sept. 2021 (Courtesy of AFRW)

AFRW is the state’s chapter of the National Federation of Republican Women, a grassroots organization founded in 1938 to recruit Republican candidates, protect the integrity of elections and “increase the effectiveness of women in the cause of good government,” according to the group’s website.

AFRW’s county chapters recruit candidates who can receive educational support through online resources or campaign schools. Lloyd attended a two-day session when she first ran for state Senate in 2016 and said it was “super, super valuable.”

Lacking knowledge of how to run a campaign can be a hurdle for women. 

Emerge addresses this through candidate training initiatives. Offered in non-election years, the Signature program covers 70 hours of curriculum in four to six months. A one-week boot camp is offered during election years.  

Participants are not required to run for a Democratic seat or any elected office, but they will have access to continuing education and a network of alumna. Applications for the 2023 Signature program close Jan. 8.

Rep. Denise Ennett listens to a guest inside the Arkansas Capitol
Rep. Denise Ennett (D-Little Rock) (Courtesy of the Arkansas House)

Twenty Emerge alumna were on the 2022 ballot in Arkansas. Rep. Denise Ennett (D-Little Rock) is one of five Emerge candidates who won. While first running for office in 2019, Ennett went to an Emerge boot camp in Mississippi.

“It was a great experience for me just to be there with women who were in the thick of it like I was,” she said.

Ennett had attended training sessions hosted by other organizations previously because she was interested in politics, but she said the Emerge program resonated differently because she was actually running for office. 

“It was a great refresher, reminded me of what’s important and just trying to be the best politician that I can be,” she said.

Financial assistance

Finances can prevent women from seeking office in Arkansas where filing fees are some of the most expensive in the nation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

For Republicans, the state filing fee is $7,500 for the Senate and $3,000 for the House. For Democrats, those fees are $3,000 and $2,500. Democrats running in a district without a sitting Democratic legislator may have their fee waived if they obtain a signature of a county chair or executive committee member in their Congressional district. 

Someone issued a call for help when Ennett first ran for office, and to her surprise, they collected enough money to cover her filing fee by the next day.

“That was very inspirational, very inspiring that people that I didn’t really know at the time thought so much of me to do that,” she said. “And that kind of made me feel like, okay, maybe this is what I’m supposed to be doing right now.”

headshot of Sharon Lloyd
Sharon Lloyd, first vice president of the AFRW (Courtesy of Sharon Lloyd)

As a political action committee, the Arkansas Federation of Republican Women can provide financial support to women and men. County clubs typically donate to candidates on the local level, while AFRW supports individuals seeking state or federal office, Lloyd said.

Of the $7,392 in contributions received during the first three quarters of 2022, AFRW gave $6,600 to candidates and campaigns, according to financial disclosures. Fourth quarter financial reports are due by Jan. 16.

In addition to financial support, the federation’s county clubs assist candidates by organizing volunteers. Lloyd described AFRW’s members as “worker bees” who provide support by knocking on doors, phone banking, hosting fundraisers, installing yard signs and registering voters at community events like county fairs. 

“Putting your time and your energy into a candidate is just as important as the people that can give the money, but they don’t have the time to do the working part of what it takes for a candidate,” Lloyd said.

Volunteer support is a reminder that you’re not alone, Representative-elect Mindy McAlindon said. A first-time candidate who’s active in AFRW, McAlindon is headed to the Capitol after winning the House District 10 election.

headshot of Mindy McAlindon, Representative-elect for House District 10
Representative-elect Mindy McAlindon (R-Centerton) (Courtesy of the Arkansas Secretary of State)

“One of the biggest things that the Republican women offer is just a constant source of support and encouragement…it’s good to have their support, and I think that those women can move mountains,” she said.

McAlindon has been involved with the Republican party for decades, working on campaigns and recruiting people. For the 2022 election, she was recruited because of her background with business and education, two topics McAlindon expects will be a focus in the upcoming legislative session.

Because the Republican party has resources and McAlindon has friends who’ve previously sought office, she felt confident seeking office herself. 

“I felt like I could make that jump just with the knowledge that I had, and that I felt like I had people around me who could help me fill in the gaps that I definitely was going to have,” she said.

Child care and politics

Sen. Breanne Davis (R-Russellville) was the first woman to give birth while serving in the Arkansas Legislature. More women, especially younger women, are needed in public office because they can bring a different perspective on issues like child care, Davis said.

“It lends itself to a different perspective, and when you’re making policy, that matters,” she said. “What I always say is when you have a gap in representation, then you have a gap in policymaking.”

Davis’ first campaign for elected office was for the Russellville School Board. At the age of 25, she had a 1-year-old son and wanted to get involved with his education before he entered the school system. 

Sen. Breanne Davis sitting in a chair
Sen. Breanne Davis (R-Russellville) (Courtesy of the Arkansas Senate)

She served on the board from 2009 until 2018 when she ran for state Senate during a special election. Davis wasn’t recruited, but pursued the opportunity on her own, something she said she knows is abnormal.

Davis had been a part of partisan politics for a long time. By volunteering on campaigns and through her experience on the school board, Davis said she learned how government worked, had a sense of campaign structure and knew who to hire to help her.

“If we’re not willing to step up to have our voice heard, then I don’t know who we’re expecting to step up in our place,” she said. “It’s got to be us.”

While children can be a source of inspiration for budding politicians, they can also be a challenge. A recently-released Arkansas Women’s Commission report found access to quality child care is one of the biggest barriers to women’s participation in the workforce.

“Having a support system there that’s nurturing to the woman, I think that’s paramount.”

– Rep. Denise Ennett

Child care is a major barrier because it’s tough to balance taking care of family while being at the Capitol three or four days a week during the session, McAlindon said. It shifts the dynamic of relationships and household responsibilities.

The business and marketing consultant homeschooled her four children for two decades and waited until they were older before seeking office. 

“As women we tend to take it all on and we want to manage it all,” she said. “I think that’s probably the hardest part for me is to say, ‘okay wait. I’ve got to let other people help here.’”

Ennett is seeking help from her parents to transport her three kids to and from school during the legislative session. Ennett will drop her son off in the morning, her mom will pick him up and her twins will ride the bus.

“Having a support system there that’s nurturing to the woman, I think that’s paramount,” she said.


Expanding representation

Emerge Arkansas has goals to expand representation among female candidates by working with what the organization calls the New American Majority, women who are less represented than white women, such as members of minority or LGBTQ communities, as well as nonbinary individuals who are comfortable in a fem-centered space, Baker said.

“We want folks of all different backgrounds, so we don’t want just the folks who’ve been doing this forever,” she said. “We want new, out-of-the-box, fresh thoughts, all these different perspectives because we govern best when we have a variety of perspectives.”

Research shows broader representation can positively affect constituents. Congresswomen secure about 9% more federal funding for their districts than men, according to a study published in the American Journal of Political Science. Women also sponsor and cosponsor significantly more bills than their male counterparts.

Arkansas Federation of Republican Women executive board
Arkansas Federation of Republican Women executive board (from left to right): Jacque Martin, Lisa Cook, Jennie Felling, Sharon Lloyd, Nikki Beavers and Wanda Malone (Photo courtesy of AFRW)

Lloyd, who was first recruited to run in 2016, said “we’re doing a good job” recruiting women. However, Lloyd also said she’s more concerned about who the best candidate is, not whether they’re a man or woman.  

“I don’t vote for you because you’re a woman, I don’t vote for you because of your skin color, I vote for you because I think your values are close to my values,” she said. “That’s who I vote for.”

While there doesn’t need to be a 50/50 split between men and women, McAlindon said it’s great to have more women in office because they bring a different view on issues than men. 

McAlindon and Ennett agreed women have a lot to bring to the table and they shouldn’t let fear keep them from pursuing a political career.

“You can do this, you are good enough,” Ennett said. “There’s no really special sauce to it. You just get in there, you get your hands dirty, do it.”

Baker estimated only 10% to 20% of first-time candidates win, so it’s appropriate to run more than one cycle. If they decide not to run again, that’s okay too, because there are other things people can do to affect change within their community even if they’re not elected, she said.

“The women who are going through this program and doing this work are not doing it for themselves,” Baker said. “They’re doing it for their community, and that doesn’t go away. That drive is there no matter what happens on election day.”


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Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.