Sexism is part of the job for many female Ohio lawmakers
By Jeremy Pelzer
COLUMBUS, Ohio When an influential Ohio lawmaker recently called his primary opponent "sweetie" and suggested she should be home taking care of her young children instead of running for office, it raised a lot of eyebrows.
And it made people wonder: Is sexism alive and well at the Statehouse?
Several female Ohio lawmakers say yes, telling cleveland.com they frequently encounter offensive jokes and remarks from their male counterparts at the Statehouse.
Other female legislators say that hasn't been the case for them, and there's general agreement that Ohio politics is far more welcoming to women today than in decades past.
But many women politicians in Ohio today believe women still face more challenges to run for and hold public office than men do, a view that is supported by outside research.
Sexism at the Statehouse
In January, Senate Majority Leader Tom Patton, a Strongsville Republican running for Ohio House this year, was roundly criticized after suggesting on a local radio show that primary opponent Jennifer Herold should wait for her two young kids to grow up before running for the legislature. He also referred to Herold as "sweetie" and a "young gal."
Several women currently in the Ohio legislature said they have heard similar comments, both from male lawmakers and voters on the campaign trail.
State Rep. Janine Boyd, a Cleveland Heights Democrat, said she was talking with other women lawmakers last June when state budget negotiations were at their peak when a male Republican lawmaker walked by.
When the women joked to him that "We wish you'd give us a better budget," Boyd said the lawmaker replied, "I've got your better budget for you," and he raised his hand as if preparing to slap someone.
"We were stunned. My jaw hit the ground," Boyd said.
Boyd said when she and another female lawmaker caught up to the man to express their displeasure, he apologized and said he was joking.
"Besides," Boyd said he added in a joking manner, "I only beat my wife on Fridays."
State Rep. Greta Johnson, a 38-year-old Akron Democrat, said she recently had a conversation with a male lawmaker who kept calling her "kiddo."
"I don't think he was trying to be disrespectful to me we certainly have a very collegial relationship," Johnson said. "But you know...are my male colleagues being called kiddo? I don't think so."
Balancing politics and parenting
A number of young mothers in the Ohio legislature said it is often tough for them to balance their job with their family. Each has found their own way to strike that balance, though, and many said they feel insulted when people question their capabilities to be both a good legislator and a good parent.
Johnson said when she first announced she was running for the legislature, even her friends indirectly accused her of being a bad parent to her twin daughters, who are now 2.
"I've never heard somebody walk up to a young father and say, 'Gosh, aren't you worried about all the time that you're going to spend away from your kids?' And I was asked that repeatedly," Johnson said.
State Rep. Christie Kuhns, a Cincinnati Democrat, gave birth to a son in March 2015, about two months after she took office.
While pregnant, Kuhns said a number of people said things to her such as "What are you going to do when the baby comes?" and "I know you're not going to leave your baby at home."
"I think people always talk about 'you need to make a choice between whether or not you want to be a mom or you want to have a high-profile position,'" Kuhns said. "I think women are forced into a box a lot of times to choose one or the other. And I don't think that's fair, because men aren't forced into a box."
Sexism isn't a problem for all
However, many women lawmakers said they have encountered little to no sexism at the Ohio Statehouse.
"I've never, ever, ever felt that they treat me differently," Senate Majority Whip Gayle Manning, a North Ridgeville Republican, said of her male colleagues. "I think they treat me as an equal."
Patton declined to comment for this story. But Manning defended the Senate majority leader, noting that he has seven sisters and raised five daughters as a widower. As for calling women "sweetie" or "kiddo," Manning, 66, wondered if that was just a reflection of the society in which older people were raised.
State Rep. Christina Hagan, a Stark County Republican, said while she's heard some comments she didn't appreciate, she doesn't take offense because she recognizes that "people come from different places."
Hagan, 27, received permission from House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger to bring her 4-month-old daughter with her to committee meetings and House sessions. While some members were initially concerned, Hagan said the response is now generally positive.
"More than not, members will stop and compliment the balance that we're striking and also thank me because when they hear her coo, it reminds them of why they serve," Hagan said.
Sometimes, Hagan said, women lawmakers face more trouble from their female colleagues than male ones.
"Because there are so few women, I think that women are oftentimes judgmental of one another, whether it's related to policy or how somebody conducts themselves, if it's not professional enough, or if it's efficient, inefficient - I feel like women are harder on themselves," she said.
Women underrepresented in legislature, leadership
Women, who make up about 51 percent of Ohio's population, hold 27 percent of Ohio House seats and 21 percent of Ohio Senate seats. That's roughly on par with other legislatures around the country -- at the start of this year's legislative session, women made up 24.5 percent of state legislatures nationwide, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Men hold seven of the 10 Republican leadership posts in the Ohio legislature, including the speaker of the House and the Senate president. Five of the eight Democrats in leadership are men.
Three of the 19 Ohio House committees have a female chair, and nine of 19 Democratic ranking members on House committees are women. In the Ohio Senate, two of 16 committee chairs, as well as six of 16 ranking members, are women.
Manning, the only woman in Senate GOP leadership, said she believes the proportion of women in leadership is less about sexism and more a reflection of how many women are serving in the legislature overall.
Another factor is that men already in leadership tend to pick people in their network - mostly other men - to fill leadership vacancies, said Erin Loos Cutraro, co-Founder & CEO of She Should Run, a Washington, D.C. based organization working to increase the number of women in elected office.
Fewer women run for office
Of the 239 candidates for the Ohio House in the March 15 primary this year, 57 - less than 24 percent - were women, according to a cleveland.com analysis. However, 47 of those 57 female House candidates advanced to the November general election.
A 2004 Brown University study found that women are significantly less likely to run for public office because they tend not to see themselves as qualified for the job and don't receive as much encouragement to run from political leaders, officeholders, and activists.
In addition, women tend to wait to be asked to run, while men more often take the initiative themselves, said Jo Ann Davidson, the first women to serve as speaker of the Ohio House. Davidson said that as House minority leader in the early 1990s, she tried hard to persuade women to run for the legislature but found them "not the easiest to recruit."
Greta Johnson said that many women choose not to run because of the pressures they face and the time constraints with raising a family.
"Quite honestly, I made the decision to run for this job rather quickly," she said. "And had I had a lot of time to research and be very thorough with the scheduling, I don't know that I would've made the same decision."
Better than before
Davidson said she believes women face far fewer barriers to public office now than when she was first elected to the legislature in 1980.
When she was elected speaker in 1995, she said some newspapers asked whether she was "tough enough" for the job -- a question she said wouldn't have been asked of a male speaker.
But now, Davidson said, a number of women hold prominent positions in Ohio, such as Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor and Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor.
"I think nobody's really questioning anymore than they're tough enough to do the job," Davidson said.
John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron, said overall, societal standards toward women have improved in the past 20-30 years. As a result, women are now treated more respectfully, he said, but it also means that when someone makes a sexist remark, it's more likely to draw attention.
There are already some efforts in Ohio to encourage and train women to run for public office, including the Jo Ann Davidson Ohio Leadership Institute.
As for bringing more women into leadership positions, Manning said she expects that will happen as a new generation of Ohioans takes the reins of power in the legislature.
She said she would like to see not just women in the legislature, but more people from diverse backgrounds and occupations.
"Talking with people with diverse backgrounds to me is probably more important than looking for somebody that is a woman - a younger woman or an older woman," she said.
Cutraro and others, however, said political leaders have a responsibility to ensure that women are well-represented in government.
"We can't expect to achieve the best policies when we shut out half the population from policymaking," she said.