Under the Dome

Women are half of NC's population, but only a quarter of the General Assembly. What's to blame?

Members of the N.C. House of Representatives, mostly men, socialize on the floor before the N.C. General Assembly convenes at the Legislative Building in Raleigh, NC, on Jan. 25, 2017.
Members of the N.C. House of Representatives, mostly men, socialize on the floor before the N.C. General Assembly convenes at the Legislative Building in Raleigh, NC, on Jan. 25, 2017. cseward@newsobserver.com

Bev Perdue was taking a walk with her husband past the Governor's Mansion shortly before she was inaugurated in 2009 as the state's first and only female governor, looking through the gates like "little baby tourists from another planet," she said. Her husband then pointed out a plaque near the front gate that dedicates the mansion to the governors and first ladies who will live within its walls.

“And I thought ‘Holy crap, they didn't even want a woman back then,’” Perdue said. “It was just so in your face. To the governors and first ladies. Automatically assuming that there would always be a first lady, not a first female governor.”

Women make up 51.4 percent of the population in North Carolina, but only 25.3 percent of the members of the General Assembly are women. No woman has ever served as speaker of the House or in the Senate's top leadership role.

Before Perdue became the first female lieutenant governor and eventual governor of the state, there was Elaine Marshall, who was the first woman elected to statewide executive office in 1996. There was Lillian Exum Clement in 1920, who became the first woman elected to the North Carolina General Assembly. And there was Gertrude Dillis McKee in 1931, who was the first woman elected to the state Senate.

While about only a quarter of the General Assembly is female, North Carolina has a higher percentage of women serving in its legislature than neighboring states do. Virginia's legislature is 19.3 percent female, Tennessee's is 16.7 percent, and South Carolina's is 14.1 percent. Georgia, however, is 26.3 percent female.

“A woman really is expected to be at the top of her game every day and every night,” Perdue said. “And therefore you've got to prepare, you've got to work harder, you've gotta focus, and you've gotta be more driven, from my perspective, than a man to get the same kind of acceptance, so the field is never level for women.”

When Perdue joined the state House in the late 1980s, there were only 20 female members. Even now though, women make up a small percentage of leadership positions in both the House and Senate, in both parties. Of the 13 leadership positions listed online for House Republicans, only three are women. On the other side of the aisle, three of the nine Democratic leadership positions are women. And only one woman has a leadership position in the Senate — Sen. Terry Van Duyn of Asheville, who is the Democratic whip.

During her election, hired consultants told Perdue not to let anyone know she was a woman in her campaign media, such as postcards and bumper stickers. All of those were red, white and blue with her last name on it. She said back then — in 1986 — being an elected official was “perceived as not the thing women would do.”

She's not alone in the experience. Other female lawmakers can tell tales of how hard the job can be on the family. Many waited until their kids were grown to run for office. Others had to convince women on the campaign trail that they'd be just as qualified as a male candidate.

Rep. Susan Martin, R-Wilson, ran for election when her two daughters were still at home — one in middle school, the other in high school. Martin said leaving her daughters at home was “much more of a sacrifice” than she realized at first. She said her husband was able to change his schedule and take on more household responsibilities so she could become a legislator.

Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield, D-Wilson, waited to join the legislature until after her two daughters were grown. She said she couldn't hide her gender when she ran for her seat in the early 2000s. She was well known in Wilson County and the other counties in her district because of her work in the community.

“What I found was that women were asking me constantly, ‘Why do you want to run? What would possess you to want to run?’” she said. “Some of them even thought I wanted to run because of my ex-husband (U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield) … But it wasn't about doing it because of my ex-husband being involved in politics, it was about making a difference and carrying on my family legacy.”

Sen. Angela Bryant, D-Nash, who has served in both the state House and Senate, said being a woman has always been a barrier to getting involved in politics. Her first campaign was when she was a fourth grader running for class hostess — long before Title IX was enacted.

Martin came to the General Assembly after spending 10 years at home with her two daughters. She'd previously worked at IBM. She didn't think she'd want to get involved with politics, but knew as her daughters got older that she wanted to get more involved in leadership roles in the community.

“And I didn't expect it to be in politics, I was expecting it to be ministry or Bible study. And then this opportunity to run for this new House seat came up,” Martin said. She had hosted a campaign event for a family friend, Buck Newton, who was running for the state Senate. After that event party leaders asked her to run for an open House seat. At first she laughed at the suggestion, but after praying about it, she changed her mind.

Martin and Sen. Tamara Barringer, R-Wake, have had similar experiences at the legislature. Both said they were accepted by their male colleagues and didn't have their voices silenced. But both noted they were often the only women in some settings, which they were used to because of their previous professional backgrounds.

“I have never felt shut out (at the General Assembly),” Barringer said. “(My colleagues) have appreciated the work that I have and the expertise I bring to the table. As a matter of fact I get drawn into committees because they want my point of view and want the expertise of the years I've had in business.”

But not every female lawmaker has had the same experience. Bryant recalls a time in the House when the power dynamics in the legislature shifted from Democratic to Republican, and the Democratic women weren't given interim committee appointments.

“We did an analysis and we got zero appointments. I don't know how conscious that was,” she said. “But we looked at that first round of (legislative) redistricting, the people who got raw deals, were (women) ... there was the assault on women.”

When it comes to committee chair appointments, women are sometimes underrepresented. During the 2009-10 legislative session — the last when Democrats were the majority party — women held about 38 percent of the chair positions for House standing committees. Now, they hold about 13 percent. In the Senate in 2009-10, nearly 13 percent of chair positions were held by women; now it's about 17.

Martin said there have only been a few occasions where someone has made a comment about her gender. She was once told she was too good looking to be taken seriously. She said that often, in public, she's not recognized as a representative. Once, even in her own office when her intern was being bothered by protesters, she told them they had to leave. They didn't realize she was the representative whose office they were in.

“This assumption that I am not the representative can be discouraging,” she said.

Perdue, who served two terms in the state House and about a decade in the state Senate, said she was seen as a peer with male colleagues despite her gender, because of strong relationships she built early on in her first term. But that didn't make her immune to sexism.

“I think the climate has changed since the ‘80s and ‘90s,” Perdue said. “There was really no such term as political correctness, and there were very few of us that even, that didn't expect, if you will, some type of implicit or submissive sexism. I don't even know if we used that word then. But it was the way it was.”

All four of the current lawmakers interviewed said they felt supported by and are working to support other female lawmakers. Martin said women are needed in elected offices —including the General Assembly.

“Women oftentimes look at things in a different way, and when you can speak up and participate, it brings value and it's needed that we have more women at the table looking at things in different ways,” she said.

Both parties are working to recruit more women for General Assembly and statewide offices. Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the state Republican Party, couldn't provide specific numbers but said over the past few years, the NCGOP has “focused intensely of recruiting and training female candidates for office, especially the General Assembly and judicial races.”

“From a competitive standpoint this is key, as females comprise a significantly higher percent of voters than do males,” Woodhouse said. “It is also key in making sure that as the majority governing party in North Carolina, we are reflecting a wide range of views across the conservative spectrum.”

Sarah Preston, executive director of Lillian's List — an organization dedicated to recruiting, training and supporting progressive women to run for office — said that since last November's election, about 200 women have reached out to the organization — an all-time high. Usually, she said, fewer than 20 women reach out during an election cycle. Lillian's List is named in honor of the first woman elected to the General Assembly.

Preston said one of the barriers to women running for office is that many aren't asked or encouraged to run like men are — which is where Lillian's List comes into play.

“(We're) asking women to run, and making sure they know they're qualified to run,” she said.

Perdue offered some advice for women looking to get involved in politics: You have to be able to raise the money.

“As long as the system is what it is, you don't have a choice but to play … and so you have to be willing to ask your best friend for $500 and if you don't have the stomach to do that, then you're wasting your time,” she said.

Lauren Horsch: 919-836-2801, @LaurenHorsch