In 1921, when Boyd County voters made Mary Elliott Flanery the first woman in the South to be elected to a state legislature, she did not lack confidence about the work ahead. “I can hold my own with the boys when I get to Frankfort,” she is quoted as saying.
Her election came just a year after the nation ratified the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, giving women the right to vote. Kentucky’s General Assembly put its overwhelming support behind the amendment in January 1920, but it did not become official until 89 years ago this month, when Tennessee became the 36th state to approve it – by one vote, no less. Fittingly, that vote came when a young legislator changed his mind at the urging of his mother.
Historically, Kentucky can lay claim to being the first state that granted at least some measure of equal voting rights, when in 1838 Kentucky gave property-owning widows and single women the right to vote in school elections.
In many ways, women have made tremendous strides politically since gaining the right to vote. Women have long made up more than half of voters, for example, and in presidential elections, they have been in the majority since 1980.
Still, there is much more room for progress. Of 180 countries that directly elect their leaders, the United States ranks 71st in the percentage of office holders who are women, putting us behind such countries as China and Rwanda.
In Congress, 17 percent of its members are women, and in Kentucky’s General Assembly, it’s 14 percent, which trails the national average of 24 percent but is still much higher than it was in the 1990s. Last November, New Hampshire’s state senate crossed a major threshold when it became the first legislative body in the nation to have more women than men.
At the local level, women are still significantly under-represented in elected office. A look at Kentucky’s 120 counties shows that eight county judge/executives are women, but only two are jailers and just one is a sheriff. It should be noted, though, that many believe the country’s first female sheriff served in Graves County, having been appointed to the office almost exactly one year after the 19th Amendment was ratified.
Women have made greater strides in other elected and appointed offices in Kentucky. In the mid-1990s, when the Secretary of State began tracking numbers, just about 11 percent were in the judiciary; now, nearly one in three on the bench is a woman.
Meanwhile, Governor Beshear has made a concerted effort to increase the number of women serving on the state’s many boards and commissions. During his first 100 days in office, he appointed 268 women versus 62 men.
If Mary Elliott Flanery could be with us today, I believe she would be pleased with the progress that has been made since she served in the legislature, but there is little doubt she would also encourage many more to follow in her footsteps, “to hold their own with the boys,” no matter the field.
If you would like to let me know your views about this issue or any other involving state government, please don’t hesitate to contact me. My address is Room 366B, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601.
You can also leave a message for me or for any legislator at 800-372-7181. For the deaf or hard of hearing, the number is 800-896-0305.
I hope to hear from you soon.
Representative Rick Rand