GOP’s future success will require increased gender inclusion

None of Georgia’s eight statewide constitutional offices, from governor through agriculture commissioner, is held by a woman. None of the five members of the state Public Service Commission, elected statewide to regulate utilities, is a woman.

Likewise, none of Georgia’s 16 seats in Congress — 14 in the House and two in the Senate — is held by a woman. That’s zero for 29.

Unlike many states, we have never had a female governor or lieutenant governor. And the only woman to represent Georgia in the U.S. Senate was Rebecca Felton, who served for all of one day in 1922 as an honorary seat-holder. While Felton was a stern advocate of a woman’s right to vote, she’s not a role model to be emulated. Besides her work for women’s suffrage, her primary fixation was to increase the number of lynchings of black men, as a means of keeping the Negro in his proper place.

In other words, Georgia voters are probably the least woman-friendly in the nation. The question is why.

Part of the explanation lies in partisan politics. This is a Republican state, and whatever your theory as to why, Republicans elect significantly fewer women to office than do Democrats. Of the 20 women in the U.S. Senate, 16 are Democrats and just four are Republicans. The same is true at the state level. Georgia is one of just four states with no women either serving in Congress or holding statewide constitutional office. The other three states, like Georgia, have Republican governors and largely Republican legislatures.

Closer to home, take a look at the Georgia Legislature. Of the 38 Republicans elected to the Georgia Senate, only one is a woman. The numbers are better, but still very low, in the Georgia House. While women make up almost half of the House Democratic Caucus, they comprise less than 15 percent of the Republican caucus.

To their credit, Republicans did elect women to fill two of the seven leadership positions in the House, where Jan Jones is speaker pro tem and Donna Sheldon is majority caucus chair. Those in the Legislature know the importance of those jobs and the influence that Jones and Sheldon wield, but their ability to serve as public role models is limited because they have such little visibility outside the Gold Dome.

In some ways, it’s a curious thing. In both parties, women tend to be the workhorses, putting in long and often thankless hours at the grassroots level. Women such as Debbie Dooley and Julianne Thompson also play prominent roles in state tea-party and conservative organizations. At the GOP state convention in Athens this weekend, women volunteers will once again be everywhere, running the event and doing jobs that many men would not want, while rarely seeking or obtaining leadership roles. (One notable exception is GOP party chair Sue Everhart, who is stepping down this year.)

The good news is, that may be changing with so many vacancies in elective offices opening up this year.

Sheldon, the House caucus chair, has announced her candidacy for the GOP nomination in the 10th congressional district. Tricia Pridemore, a Republican activist and ally of Gov. Nathan Deal, has announced that she’s running in the 11th district. Former Secretary of State Karen Handel, who narrowly lost the 2010 gubernatorial primary to Nathan Deal, is considered a likely candidate for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. And Michelle Nunn’s name continues to be floated as a Democratic Senate candidate, although the name appears far more often than the potential candidate herself.

Handel will be especially interesting to watch. In the 2010 gubernatorial primary, you got the sense that her opponents marginalized her because of her gender, and Handel herself ran as a direct challenge to the good-ol-boy frat-like mentality that dominates the Gold Dome. With the rest of the announced GOP field coming out of the congressional delegation, she’s likely to be cast as the outsider again in 2014.

There’s a lot at stake. The Republican Party, both in Georgia and nationwide, faces a series of demographic challenges, among them a shortfall among women. In the 2012 presidential race, Republicans lost among women voters by a double-digit margin. That ought to be the easiest problem in the bunch to fix, but only if GOP leaders and its voters are willing to change the party’s overwhelmingly masculine face.