Democrat Maura Healey and Republican Sarah Huckabee Sanders became the first women to serve as governors of their states this year, but only one of them was honored this month by USA Today — and it wasn’t Mrs. Sanders.
Ms. Healey was named one of the newspaper’s 2023 Women of the Year for her election win in Massachusetts, but Arkansas’ Mrs. Sanders was nowhere to be found. It was another of what Republicans say is a double standard embedded in Women’s History Month, known in conservative circles as Democratic Women’s History Month.
Republicans have grown accustomed to being passed over during the annual March celebration in favor of liberal women such as Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama and Gloria Steinem, but that doesn’t make it less frustrating.
“I would like to see Republican women recognized for our accomplishments,” Arkansas Lt. Gov. Leslie Rutledge told The Washington Times. “Here in Arkansas, we have broken many glass ceilings.”
Arkansas and Massachusetts also became the first states this year to have female governors and lieutenant governors serving at the same time. The difference is that Mrs. Sanders and Ms. Rutledge, both Republicans, were elected independently and not together on the same ticket.
“From a small Southern, now dark-red state, I think it’s remarkable that it’s something that unfortunately is not being highlighted by some of our more traditional media,” Ms. Rutledge said. “Because we want young women and Americans to know that women are excelling and being celebrated regardless of their political affiliation.”
Ms. Rutledge knows a thing or two about smashing glass ceilings. In addition to becoming the first female lieutenant governor in Arkansas, she was the state’s first female attorney general and the first constitutional officeholder to give birth while in office.
Like other women of all political stripes, she has stories from the stump.
“I would be asked on the campaign trail in 2013 and 2014 if I was tough enough to be the attorney general, and I would always laugh and say, ‘If a girl can get through junior high, she can do absolutely anything,’” Ms. Rutledge said.
Democrats have long depicted theirs as the pro-woman party, and most women do vote Democratic. The majority of women have voted for the Democratic presidential candidate in every race since 1996, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Democratic women also outnumber Republican women in Congress and in state legislatures, but Republicans are making inroads. In Pennsylvania, the nine Republican women in the state Senate outnumber the eight Democratic women. Leading the chamber is Republican Kim Ward, the first female Senate president pro tempore in state history.
“We have great women also, but I think there is a bias and actually a perception that the Democrats are the party of women,” said Ms. Ward. “If you look at our own Pennsylvania State Senate, we have more women on the Republican side than the Democrats have.”
Democrats have long touted their platform as being more women-friendly. They have cited their support for issues such as unlimited abortion access, increased public school funding and equal pay, but Republicans argue that other issues are pro-women.
“There is so much more than abortion for women,” said Ms. Ward, who was also the state’s first female Senate majority leader.
She cited the expansion of the state’s child care tax credits and support for energy production, lower electricity bills and improved education. One of her favorite lines is: “Female-forward policies are family-forward policies.”
“I don’t know that it’s the reality that the Democrats are the party of women,” she said. “That’s what we heard for years. It’s like they branded that, but I don’t believe that’s factual.”
Champions of education, girls’ sports
Republicans say they are on the right side of women with regard to the gender identity movement, particularly when it comes to bills banning male-born athletes who identify as female from competing in girls’ and women’s sports.
Ms. Rutledge said it is one of the issues “where the Dems have taken for granted the female vote.”
“Moms do not want their daughters to have to compete with males in sports, but more importantly, they don’t want their daughters to have to be in a dressing room with males,” Ms. Rutledge said. “They do not want their daughters to give up opportunities simply because of a political agenda of the very far liberal left.”
South Carolina Lt. Gov. Pamela Evette said Republican women in the State House led the way last year to pass the Save Women’s Sports Act, which requires scholastic athletes to play on teams based on their sex at birth from elementary school through college.
She heard from parents from across the state who were alarmed by the idea that male-born athletes who identify as female “could come in and pretty much wipe away everything their daughters were able to accomplish.”
“I’m a mom of three and my oldest is a girl, and we worked so hard to make sure that they had opportunities, that there were scholarships available to [girls],” she said. “We fought so hard for that, and really in what seemed like the blink of an eye, they were just disappearing, getting out of reach for our daughters. I think women played a huge role in that and in really standing up for their daughters.”
Another issue on which conservative women are leading is education. Ms. Evette said the advent of remote learning during the pandemic’s school closures led to the emergence of groups such as Moms for Liberty, inspiring women to run for school boards after seeing how politically liberal the classrooms have become.
“As Republican women, we don’t get enough of the love when it comes to Women’s History Month, and we’re not being recognized enough for the contributions we make,” Ms. Evette said. “I think the contributions we’re making will help shape this next generation of women. There are some real women’s issues once again that are substantive, and it’s Republican women who are leading the charge.”
USA Today did recognize a couple of Republican women in its 2023 Women of the Year issue: former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who retired from the court in 2006, and newly retired Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, who split with Republicans last year in a bitter dispute over redistricting.
Most of the 62 women honored by USA Today this year were not political figures. They included community activists, performers, authors, academics, nonprofit group owners, lawyers, and one astronaut, Nicole Mann. Two groups, the U.S. women’s soccer team and the women of the 118th Congress, were also recognized.
Ms. Healey, the Massachusetts governor, was one of 10 women recognized as national honorees over Mrs. Sanders.
What also irks conservatives is that one of the Democratic honorees is a transgender woman: first-term Minnesota state Rep. Leigh Finke, who transitioned from male to female in 2017.
The Democrat was named the Woman of the Year from Minnesota, leapfrogging female pioneers such as Minnesota House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth, the first woman to lead the Republican caucus and the first Black lawmaker to lead any of Minnesota’s four legislative caucuses.
Ms. Demuth, a small-business owner, said she has made it a priority to address the state’s workforce shortage by tackling roadblocks holding back potential workers, including the loss of child care providers.
“As a Republican woman and as a solid conservative woman, I think making opportunity for women to succeed in all areas of life is a priority,” Ms. Demuth said.
When she ran for caucus leader, she refused to play the identity card. She told fellow Republicans that she didn’t want anyone to vote for her as a person of color or as a woman.
“I was very clear with my caucus to say, ‘If you are going to vote for me for leadership for the next two years because I’m a woman or because I’m a Black woman, I don’t want that vote,” Ms. Demuth said. “If you think I can lead our caucus through the next two years and into the majority in the next election, please vote for me.”
That stance distinguishes Republican women from Democrats, who put emphasis on sex, race, ethnicity and gender. President Biden announced that he wanted his running mate to be a Black woman before listing other qualifications.
“When I hear my Democratic colleagues very much try to use gender politics and identify what you are first — that has never been who I am. That has never been a part of my life,” said Ms. Demuth. “I’m not hiding anything in any way. But that has never been what has led me in areas I want to influence, nor in the way that I view other people.”
When evaluating others for positions, she said, “My question is, what can you get done? Can you do the work?”
Ms. Ward said her focus wasn’t on making history when she became the first female Senate majority leader in 2021.
“I remember I walked down the hallway and a reporter put a tape recorder up to my mouth and said, ‘What’s it like being the first female majority leader in the history of Pennsylvania?’ And I said, ‘Oh, I hadn’t thought about it,’” she said. “All I did, and I think what women do, is work hard.”
Ms. Ward, a mother of three sons and a grandmother, did allow herself to enjoy the achievement just a little before putting her nose back to the grindstone.
“I thought, ‘Wow, this is just really something terrific that I hope someday my grandchildren see,’” she said, “and think maybe their Kiki did something really good,” she said.
• Valerie Richardson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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