Female candidates are positioned to make significant gains in Montana this election year with the highest number seeking statewide political office in at least three decades, including races for governor, U.S. House and other high-profile posts.
Montana was the first state in the nation to elect a woman to Congress, before women in most of the U.S. could even vote. State voters haven’t sent another female lawmaker to Washington since Jeanette Rankin was elected to the U.S. House in 1916 and then returned for a second term during World War II.
Eleven women are in the running for statewide offices heading into the June 2 primary, including five Republicans, four Democrats, a Green and a Libertarian.
“Women in general are running more and more,” said Sara Rinfret, who chairs the Public Administration and Policy Department at the University of Montana. “These women are pushing back against the idea that it’s an exception and attempting to make it the norm, to make sure the next generation has that chance.”
Ballots for the mail-in election went out to voters Friday. Polling stations will be closed due to the coronavirus.
Nationwide, record numbers of female candidates were elected to Congress in 2018, earning it the moniker “year of the woman.”
That wave largely fizzled when it hit Montana. Despite a strong showing for women running for state Legislature, only one was a serious contender in a statewide race and she lost. That was U.S. House candidate Kathleen Williams, a former state lawmaker who was significantly outspent but nearly won.
Williams is back this year as the presumed front-runner for the Democratic nomination. She faces state Rep. Tom Winter in the primary.
“A century after Jeannette Rankin went to Congress I just think now, more than ever, Montanans need a true independent voice in Congress,” Williams said in an interview.
On the Republican side in the House race is former Montana Republican Party Chair Debra Lamm. She has four male primary opponents: state Auditor Matt Rosendale, Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, Joe Dooling and John Evankovich.
Lamm emphasized that she’s not running as a woman but the most qualified candidate. She said issues such as the wage gap between male and female workers are used to create a “false division” between the sexes that's not as significant as people make it out to be.
She said her nomination would neutralize any advantage Williams would otherwise have among voters who want a Montana woman in Washington.
“If I am the Republican candidate, we can eliminate gender from the ballot,” Lamm said. “If you inject gender and other criteria, it really takes away from what really matters. That’s probably how most Republican women feel: ‘Compare my qualifications to this guy over here.’”
In the gubernatorial race, Missoula businesswoman Whitney Williams faces Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney in the Democratic primary. Republican Judy Martz is the only woman to have previously served as Montana governor, from 2001 to 2004.
Williams was an aide to former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and worked on Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. In Montana, she’s perhaps best known as the daughter of former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams and state Senate Majority Leader Carol Williams.
“It’s role modeling: You see somebody who looks like you, you realize you can do it,” Williams said. “The more we have women running for office, the more we are going to see women winning and leading.”
Monica Lindeen, a former state lawmaker who served two terms as state auditor after losing a 2006 run for U.S. House, recalled encountering a group of older women in eastern Montana during her first run for office in 1996. They “looked at me sideways because I had a little girl who was probably 6 or 7 at the time," Lindeen said, “and they were wondering, who was going to watch her child?”
In the years since, Lindeen said she’s seen voters become more at ease with women in leadership roles.
Republican secretary of state candidate Christi Jacobsen said she doesn’t view the election through a gender lens and that both men and women who run were “stepping up instead of of sitting on the sidelines.”
State auditor candidate Nelly Nicol, a self-described “momma bear” who honed her advocacy skills fighting on behalf of a sick daughter, says the fellow Republicans she meets are most interested in her policies and age. Being a woman has been rarely mentioned, she said.
The number of female lawmakers in the Capitol has been trending upwards for three decades and they now make up about one-third of the Legislature, putting Montana ahead of the national average. Executive branch positions have proved harder to crack.
That reflects broader attitudes among voters across the U.S. who are more comfortable with women as members of legislative bodies than in executive positions, said Jean Sinzdak, associate director for the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Women are not groomed as candidates in the same way, and the perception of elected officials as older, white and male has persisted, giving rise to unconscious bias at the polls, Sinzdak said.
Attorney general candidate Kimberly Dudik, thought to be the first woman to give birth during a legislative session, in 2017, said people who argue you can't run for office and have a family really just mean women can’t run for office. Now, women see that both are attainable, she said.
“But I also think we’re seeing a real pushback and attacks on women’s rights," Dudik said. “If the people in office won’t stand up and make changes, I’m going to do it.”
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