Terri Collins was a North Alabama banker with no political experience when the state GOP leadership came calling.
It was 2009, and the Alabama Republican Party was scoping candidates to run in state legislative districts they thought might be ripe for flipping. The party wanted to wrestle control of the Alabama Legislature from the Democrats, who’d held it for the previous 130+ years.
Leaders thought Collins, active in her community, a devout Christian and married mother of three, could help them flip the Alabama House of Representatives’ 8th District, then held by a Democrat who was at that time the oldest member of the state Legislature.
“I would not have considered (running) unless someone had asked me,” Collins told Reckon. “Maybe it’s just not something we‘ve thought about.”
Collins won her primary in 2010 and later defeated her Democratic challenger to flip the seat. The GOP swept the state that year, winning all statewide races on the ballot and capturing majorities in both the state House and Senate.
Since then, Collins has sponsored hundreds of pieces of legislation. She’s perhaps best known these days for sponsoring the 2019 Human Life Protection Act, which became the most restrictive abortion law in the nation.
After a decade in the State House, Collins is a star in Alabama conservative politics.
She’s also one of only seven Republican women in the 140-member state legislature.
Alabama is one of the reddest states in the nation, but it’s got the lowest percentage of Republican women serving as state legislators of any state in the South, at just 5 percent.
Alabama also has one of the lowest percentages of women legislators in the South, period. Just 18 women serve in the state House, four in the state Senate. Most of them are Democrats.
Republican women do serve in offices at state and local levels. The governor, Kay Ivey, is a Republican.
But women are conspicuously absent from many of the state’s elected higher offices, like Attorney General or Secretary of State.
And the paltry number serving in the state legislature has led some political observers to ask: Where are the Republican women?
“Having a female governor, and we had a female chief justice not long ago, and my local area had a female sheriff, hopefully we’re moving in a direction that those numbers will increase,” said Collins, “because I do believe women bring a positive perspective to all levels of government.”
It’s an issue that Mary Scott Hunter, a former State School Board member and state Senate candidate has heard discussed quietly in Republican circles, particularly among women.
“I thought the problem was that Republican women aren’t running,” Hunter told Reckon. “But that’s actually not true. Across the nation, Republican women are running. But they aren’t winning. Why?”
‘How deep does that go?’
When Hunter ran for office, she often heard the same kinds of questions crop up between questions on policy at candidate forums and meet-and-greets:
“Who’s taking care of the kids?”
“I don’t know how you do it.”
“She does all of this and she does the dishes!”
“People are well-meaning,” Hunter said. “They mean to be good-natured and I always laughed, but occasionally those comments would get a little more pointed than even I could take.”
Once, when fielding a question about her home life, Hunter told the crowd how she and her husband, John, share household chores and parenting responsibilities for their three children, while also pursuing their careers. Hunter is an attorney and a U.S. Air Force veteran.
“I feel very proud of (sharing duties), and when I can talk about it, I always try to because I feel like that is the brand of feminism I am,” said Hunter. One woman at the event didn’t seem satisfied with her answer and pushed further, asking, “Well, who folds the laundry?”
“You start to wonder,” said Hunter, “’How deep does that go?’”
Historically, the South has had a history of low representation of women in elected office, said Jean Sinzdak, associate director of the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University, which collects data on women in elected office.
“The Southern states have lagged behind much of the rest of the country, and a lot of that has to do with their being traditionally very red states,” she said. “Women have had a harder time gaining traction in the Republican party in terms of running and winning office.”
Across the South, about four out of five state legislators are men, according to a Reckon analysis of data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Southern state legislatures average about 8% Republican women, 13% Democratic women. Republican women’s representation ranges from a low in Alabama at 5 percent to a high in Florida of 12%.
Numbers aren’t much better at the federal level. In Congress, of 535 House and Senate seats, 127 are held by women.
Even that number belies the scant representation of Republican women. Currently, 106 Democratic women serve in Congress compared with 21 Republican women. That’s the same number of Republican women who served in Congress in 1995, according to data from CAWP.
Despite the small group of Republican women in the state legislature, Alabama Republican Party Chair Terry Lathan said the state is currently at a historic high for the number of GOP women serving in elected offices around the state, including the governor, most of the state school board, the president of the Public Service Commission, several elected judges, circuit clerks and 98 women holding county offices, she said.
“There is not a one size fits all answer for the smaller number of GOP women in the state legislature,” she said in a statement to Reckon.
“While looking at the state legislature currently shows a lower number of Republican women in office than we would like, the overall record–breaking number of women GOP office holders we have in Alabama is a testament to conservative women running for, and winning, seats in every category in our state.”
Nationwide Republican women are running in record numbers in 2020. More than 200 Republican women filed to run for the U.S. House this year, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. They’re also a more diverse bunch. Of the Republican women who won their primaries, nearly half are women of color.
In Alabama, Lathan said Republican women are being recruited.
“Our county and state party members are always looking for and recruiting women who may be interested in running for office,” she said. Lathan is currently the longest-serving woman Alabama GOP chairman. The number of women holding elected office across the state, she said, shows “building enthusiasm and dedication from conservative women to run for office.”
But when Republican women do run for office, they often have a hard time making it through their primaries, said Sinzdak.
“The primary voters, on either side, are generally the hardcore base of the party,” she said. “Republican primary voters tend to be more conservative, and that’s a factor in (primaries) where it’s just harder for women.”
Hunter said she’s found this to be true. She thinks that women, rightly or wrongly, are often perceived as more moderate than their male counterparts, which makes primaries particularly difficult for women trying to appeal to the party’s base.
“I will say unequivocally that being a female in a GOP primary in Alabama, at best it’s neutral, but at worst it can be a disadvantage,” she said. “It’s definitely not an advantage.”
‘A perfect fit’
When Collins ran for the State House of Representatives in 2010, a voter asked her a question that she said caught her by surprise: What difference do you think you can make as a woman?
“I said, ‘I think it could cut down on the fist fights,’” she joked. Her quip was nod to a fight that had broken out on the floor of the Alabama Senate three years before, when a Republican male legislator slugged a Democratic legislator in the face.
Fewer slugfests aside, research has found differences in the ways women and men approach policy making, said Sinzdak.
“One of those things is transparency,” she said. “Women policy officials are more likely to make governing more open and transparent. They are also more likely to build consensus across the aisle. You want more women on both sides of the aisle; they’re more likely to build bridges.”
Lathan believes women are particularly suited for politics.
“We are multi-taskers, highly organized and motivated with a passion for things we believe should be done,” she said. “Being mothers, grandmothers, wives, caretakers to our family members, often for parents, we move quickly with problem solving tasks.
“These attributes are a perfect fit, and much needed, in the political arena.”
But as the number of Republican women in the Legislature has dwindled, it’s become a political liability.
After Collins introduced her anti-abortion bill in 2019, national media focused on debate in the overwhelmingly male Republican state legislature, where male legislators stumbled through cringe-worthy explanations of the female reproductive system in an effort to explain the bill’s reasoning.
“A lack of women is like cutting your arm off,” Hunter said. “You’re just not utilizing all of the talent that’s out there.
“When it comes to making decisions, when you don’t have all the people at the table that you need to get all the perspectives you need, the decision-making is going to be degraded.”
Lagging behind Democrats
The big story of the 2018 midterms was about women Congressional candidates running and winning in record numbers. But those gains belonged almost exclusively to Democratic women. Republican women, meanwhile, saw their ranks shrink even further.
The number of Republican women fell in the U.S. House, in statewide elected executive offices and in state legislatures, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.
“I do think that there’s encouragement (from the Republican Party) for women to run,” said Hunter. “But that’s just the very tip of the iceberg for what you need to be successful in a race. You need so much more than that.”
The infrastructure, the grassroots activist groups, training programs and the big PAC money that got Democratic women newcomers, elected in 2018 doesn’t exist in the same way for Republican women.
On the Democratic side, large and well-funded political action committees like Emily’s List provide the financial support specifically for women candidates. In 2018 Emily’s List raised $110 million to support Democratic women candidates. Groups like Emerge identify and train Democratic women for roles up and down the ballot.
In 2018, U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York launched E-PAC to specifically support Republican women candidates, after the number of GOP women in Congress fell from 23 to 13 as a result of the midterms. But in general, the PACs supporting Republican women haven’t reached the same level of prominence in terms of money raised or the ability to support candidates, said Sinzdak.
“The infrastructure isn’t there to support those Republican women and we know from research the infrastructure is hugely important,” said Sinzdak.
Should the Republican party focus specifically on women at all? Even the idea of providing support to a candidate based on gender is anathema among many conservatives.
While Democrats tend to seek out and celebrate candidates for their diverse backgrounds, Republicans tend to stay focused on where candidates stand on political issues.
And many times, Republican women candidates shy away from focusing on their gender.
“I personally have worked hard to not distinguish myself as just a woman in the legislature, but just a legislator,” Collins said. “I think that’s important. If you want to be treated equally, I think it starts with you thinking of yourself as equal. Not looking for what might look different for you versus someone else.”
But at the same time, Collins said that until she was asked, she never would have considered running for office.
“I think if we want more women involved,” she said, “that recruitment has to be part of the strategy.”
Focusing on gender can veer uncomfortably close to a noxious phrase in Republican circles: identity politics.
“It’s hard for us on the Republican side, because rightly we reject identity politics,” said Hunter. “But I think we also tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater on this. That gets translated into not even wanting to understand why this trend (of few Republican women being elected) is happening.
“We really do need to understand what’s happening because the trend has been toward less, not more, diversity.”
Sinzdak called the outlook for the 2020 election “far better than we’ve seen in decades” for Republican women on a national level. In theory, more women running means more women winning.
“But in terms of a sea change, it will only happen if the party will find ways to bring women into the fold and support them, run them as candidates and get them to the finish lines,” she said.
State races could see a trickle-down effect eventually, making it easier for Republican women to break through their primaries in future races. But that will take time.
“It’s not like any one election cycle is going to solve it,” she said. “There are a lot of unanswered questions. What does the Republican party want to look like? Do they want to recognize gender as an asset?”
The election Tuesday could make a difference in whether Republican leadership pushes for more women in elected office. Losing the White House or control of the Senate might trigger a long look in the mirror for Republicans; winning could give the party permission to move efforts to diversify candidates to the back burner.
“In my experience in politics, you need to have a forcing function, a reckoning,” said Hunter. She thinks that if Republicans lose the White House and the Senate on Tuesday, “there may be some self-reflection.”
But even a hoped-for win for President Trump and Congressional Republicans doesn’t mean the status quo can remain for much longer, Hunter said.
“For now, the GOP can win a lot of elections without diverse voters. But that won’t last forever,” she said. “It would be smart of us to look ahead and get ahead of that. I hope we do.”