In answer to our 2019 JFK Scholarship essay question, “What positive impacts have women in public office had on the political system of Alabama?”, Ariana Smartt of Randolf High School answers the following:
The 2018 election cycle saw an unprecedented number of women run for office. This was a phenomenon across the nation and also in Alabama. The push for female candidates was driven by more than just wanting state legislatures to be demographically proportional. Undoubtedly, voters across the country realized the unique strengths of female leaders. Female lawmakers, especially in Alabama, have demonstrated special legislative persistence and coalition-building abilities. While 2018 elections saw so many women throwing their hat into the ring, 2018 also saw one example of this strong female leadership leave office: Representative Patricia Todd. From crusading for change in the nonprofit world to defending progress in the Alabama House of Representatives, Representative Todd was able to remain steadfast in her beliefs and legislative priorities while still fostering bipartisanship in a deeply polarized environment. Representative Todd’s story is a prime example of how elected women have imbued Alabama’s political system with focus and civility throughout the state’s history.
Like many female lawmakers in Alabama who have prioritized an issue and fought relentlessly for it, Representative Patricia Todd made eliminating poverty her legislative mission. Since the 1970’s, Patricia Todd advocated for causes such as passing the Equal Rights Amendment and legalizing gay marriage. As the Director of Birmingham AIDS Outreach she worked tirelessly to save lives and serve her community. However, while lobbying the Alabama legislature to reject a constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage, Todd realized, “we would never change that conversation unless we were sitting at the table.” In 2006, Todd became the first openly gay member of the Alabama House of Representatives. In the legislature, Todd applied the same focus she used in the nonprofit world to work persistently on the issue of poverty. Todd helped establish Alabama’s Poverty Task Force, while also sponsoring the creation of a permanent Alabama Poverty Commission. In a legislature made primarily of generalists involving themself in whatever legislation is headline-grabbing or likely to pass, the choice to dedicate one’s time and political clout to pursuing one important issue should be celebrated. In fact, Todd’s work was the continuation of a long tradition of female lawmakers in the Alabama legislature prioritizing an issue to consistently champion and seeing real progress as a result. This tradition began with Hattie Hooker Wilkins, the very first woman elected to the Alabama House of Representatives. Wilkins made healthcare a priority, heading the committee on public health and introducing bills related to healthcare and children during her time in office. A century later, Representative Terri Collins has made expanding education in Alabama her legislative mission and is achieving significant breakthroughs in bettering Alabama’s education system. Collins fights for greater funding for education and recently secured a bill requiring Alabama’s high school students to pass a civics exam before graduating. Alabama’s political system has benefited greatly from female lawmakers who persist in their goals and achieve results.
In this hyperpolarized political environment, Representative Patricia Todd, following in the footsteps of state female lawmakers before her, fostered friendly dialogue across the aisle. No one can accuse Representative Todd of not staying loyal to her beliefs. In fact, Representative Todd would often take the opposing side during House floor debates initiated by Republicans. Nevertheless, Todd exhibited nothing but civility towards her colleagues across the aisle, actually befriending most of them. I witnessed this first hand when I paged in the Alabama House of Representatives in 2017. Throughout my week paging, I noticed that Representative Todd was close friends with her Republican colleagues, often chatting and laughing with them on the House floor. Her friendship with Representative Ed Henry was especially surprising. That year, Representative Henry had been named one of the 7 most conservative lawmakers in the state. Yet, Todd refused to let the ideological barrier between them stop them from joking around together between votes and proudly telling me they were “best friends.” In our current climate, this camaraderie is generally rare, but is actually common among Alabama’s female lawmakers. Similarly to Todd, Representative Laura Hall sets the standard of civility with her Republican colleagues. Moreover, Hall is able to connect with voters of the other party too. My grandfather, who consistently votes conservative and is an ardent Trump supporter, struggles to talk kindly about any Democrat. However, Representative Hall is the exception; my grandfather actually applauds her work protecting renters and property owners. When asked what the biggest current threat to our country is, the most popular answer among public leaders isn’t Russia, nuclear war, climate change, or the wealth gap; it’s internal division. Male leaders, particularly men like President Trump, have polarized public opinion and have sewn distrust and hatred between Americans. Our state’s female leaders have demonstrated the ability to bring people together instead of tearing them apart.
In our state history, it has never been more important that our political system focuses on legislative priorities and works across the aisle. Alabama has a bright future, but progress is slow and is constantly thwarted by corruption, controversy, and inaction. Therefore, it has never been more important to elect female lawmakers in Alabama, because, evidently, female lawmakers have been policy-focused leaders able to bridge the partisan divide. To some, arguing this may seem controversial, as advocates for women are careful when talking about the leadership differences between the sexes. After all, made-up differences in leadership were used by misogynists to keep women out of politics for centuries, and we have not yet convinced the entire public that men and women equal. However, I assert that you can believe in gender equality while also recognizing the unique strengths of women. The strengths of women have been studied, with books like Gendered Vulnerability: How Women Work Harder to Stay in Office providing research that proves women in congress secure more discretionary spending for their constituents and introduce more bills. We should talk about these strengths during elections and when recruiting women to run. That said, even if unique strengths are ignored, female lawmakers have an irreplaceable perspective. The power of involving the female point of view in state-altering decisions cannot be overstated. In the words of Representative Todd’s successor, “having Todd at the table kept Alabama from passing laws like North Carolina’s anti-trans bathroom bill.” Women of all backgrounds need to be at the table. After all, the table works better with us there.
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