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A mop bucket and suds, some rubber gloves.
When Agnes Baggett ran for State Treasurer in Alabama, she called herself the “Housewifey Politician.”
This was 1966.
By then Baggett had already served as State Secretary for 15 years, first entering office after her husband died in a car accident. At the time, women candidates across the country were emphasizing their homemaking abilities. Baggett once handed out litter bags printed with the slogan, “You keep Alabama clean, and I’ll keep the Capitol clean,” and said politics were the housekeeping of democracy. In campaign photos, she wore a string of pearls and an apron, sometimes holding a broom, her hair curled in an updo. She went on to hold more offices in Alabama than any other government official, serving as a staunch advocate for child welfare and public health.
Baggett wasn’t a housewife. She was a public servant.
It’s 2018, and the Republican voters in Alabama I talked to over the past months think the party has a problem with women: retaining female voters, recruiting female candidates. If the party is dealing with a disease, then Roy Moore is the final glaring symptom.
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This is a state, after all, where more than half of the electorate is female but less than 15 percent of its representatives are, where no woman has been mayor of any of the five largest cities, and where only one woman has been elected to serve as governor (Lurleen Wallace when her husband, George, couldn’t run for a consecutive term). This is the state where Moore, a man who spent decades in courts upholding bigoted views with the Bible as his excuse, was credibly accused by multiple women of being a pedophilic predator, and was still supported by the Republican party in his candidacy for a U.S. Senate seat.
I’m a woman. I’m an Alabamian. I wear an apron and appreciate its usefulness when I cook dinner for my husband and son.
If we roll with Baggett’s cliché, then in 2018, Republican women in Alabama have an opportunity to “clean house” and make history doing so by controlling the top offices in the state. Imagine it: A woman governor, a woman lieutenant governor, a woman attorney general, a woman chief justice.
What would it mean? In terms of policy, some pundits say: not much. In a state historically governed by older, white conservatives, these women are another batch of older, white conservatives.
This is a state, after all, where more than half of the electorate is female but less than 15 percent of its representatives are, where no woman has been mayor of any of the five largest cities, and where only one woman has been elected to serve as governor (Lurleen Wallace when her husband, George, couldn’t run for a consecutive term).
“Our branding is off if you’re under the age of 50.”
That’s what Catherine Long thinks. Long is a 37-year-old lifelong Republican, attorney, mother, and former Miss Alabama. A few Republicans I talked to in Birmingham think she should run for office, but Long says she’d rather work behind the scenes. “If my life were The West Wing, I’d be Allison Janney.”
According to Long, women today struggle to connect with the underlying tenets of the Republican party because those tenets aren’t so clear anymore. “There’s a disconnect in messaging, because on the one hand, from the fiscal perspective, you’re saying, ‘Get out of my business. You’re taxing me too much. Just let me do it. Smaller government. Let local control.’ But then, your hands are all in how I manage my family life and socially what is allowed and what isn’t.”
Long reminds me of the Republicans in my family, the kind of conservative I think of when I’m entering discussions outside of the South with liberals who don’t know or love any Republicans, who can’t imagine a Republican as anything other than toothless and toting a shotgun emblazoned with the Confederate flag, or megarich, or mega-white.
The government ought to provide equal services and protections to all people, Long says, and women in leadership would make that happen. She’ll vote for a qualified woman on a ticket, no matter the party. “There are so many studies on this. Women tend to be more collaborative. We tend to work in a less hierarchical society. We want input more often than men do. We have a different perspective. There are a lot of men in elected positions who have absolutely no idea what it’s like to be a family with two working parents and children, and a lot of women know exactly what that’s like, especially working women.”
The way she sees it, women aren’t encouraged by Republican leaders to run because of the assumption they’ll be too tied up with family responsibility; meanwhile, the party of “family values” is leaving women out of the discussion. She tells a story about how Pat Robertson killed national government-funded pre-K under the guise of family values because it was institutional brainwashing. “I think that’s bull.”
At times, Long is dazzling to talk to, quoting passages from Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Why Women Still Can’t Have It All, citing research on women-led organizations, referring to the Me Too movement by saying she hopes Oprah is right, that someday this whole movement is over not because women stop sharing stories but because men change their behavior.
When I ask her how she thinks women could change policy or the political conversation, she hesitates. I offer sexual harassment and misconduct as an example, considering the moment: Me Too, Moore. She tells me she doesn’t want candidates talking about sexual harassment if they haven’t been accused, and if they’ve been accused, then they shouldn’t run. I try asking a few different ways for specific examples of policy change but come up empty.
Before we say goodbye, I ask Long for other young Republican women to talk to, her friends, to see what they have to say. “Under 40, Republican women. Hmmm. Can you tell I’m struggling?”
“There are a lot of men in elected positions who have absolutely no idea what it’s like to be a family with two working parents and children, and a lot of women know exactly what that’s like, especially working women.”
Representation matters, for better or worse.
In a Time cover story about the historic number of women running for office across the United States in 2018, Charlotte Alter describes how nations with more equitable representation offer insight into how policy might shift here: Iceland passed a law mandating proof of equal pay; Sweden passed extensive paid family leave for all parents.
In Alabama, Republican women leading our government might inspire the next generation to stick it out with the GOP when trends are suggesting they might not be so inclined now post-Moore.
The weird thing is, two Republican women are already at the top of Alabama’s government, though neither was elected to her office. Kay Ivey became governor when her male predecessor resigned during impeachment. Lyn Stuart became chief justice when her male predecessor was suspended for putting personal beliefs above the law.
What’s the modern day equivalent of Agnes Baggett in an apron?
“There used to be a saying, ‘When women run, women win.’”
I’m on the phone with Republican Alice Martin, a candidate for Alabama Attorney General and a mother of three daughters who’s practiced law for 37 years, 25 in public office. I’m in my garage because my toddler is loudly having lunch inside with my husband, and I don’t make enough money for an office space, so I’m hoping she doesn’t hear the neighborhood’s barking dogs. Martin sounds like my old volleyball coach, tough and Southern, concise while still adding lots of extra syllables.
She tells me she was the first woman hired in multiple Alabama firms in the ‘70s and ‘80s, was the first female circuit court judge in Lauderdale County, and the first U.S. District Attorney for North Alabama. She’s a favorite in the race because of her long career investigating corruption, and she’s running on a textbook conservative platform: pro-life, pro-gun, anti-illegal immigration, anti-Democrat.
When I ask Martin about the benefit of women in leadership positions, she tells me a story about working with the FBI to track down a teenage girl who was lured into a sex trafficking ring by a guy she thought was her online boyfriend.
She is dancing the politician dance. I ask a question. She kind of answers.
What’s the difference between men and women voters? “Sometimes, and this is a generalization—I’m not trying to pigeonhole men; I’m not trying to pigeonhole women—but I hear more discussions about family values maybe. As in, what’s the impact of this on family values versus the impact on economic development?”
How has being a woman with a demanding career affected, for better or worse, your own family? “When I had my first child, I had an emergency C-section on a Monday, and my firm wanted me back the following Monday. And I reported to duty. With my second child, I had three days off. That was the firm attitude at the time.”
Why do Republicans struggle to attract women? She offers the explanation I heard from every Republican voter I talked to the past month, that women simply aren’t running because they want to raise their children. I’m quiet for a moment because I don’t really believe Martin. “That’s it?” I ask.
“If you’re viewed as the party of the older white males, that may not attract younger females to run.” There’s a pause. I get the feeling Martin doesn’t want to speak for her party or for women. “I don’t know. I’m a fiscal conservative. I believe in limited government, personal accountability. Those are the foundational pillars I identify with.”
The American flag on a clip-art stiletto.
That’s the logo of the Alabama Federation of Republican Women (AFRW), one the most respected GOP organizations in the state, a powerful influencer of an even more powerful voting bloc: middle- to upper-class white women.
Last year, the former First Lady of Alabama, Diane Bentley, spoke to the AFRW about living a quiet retirement in service to women and children. She didn’t mention her family’s recent struggles: In 2016, Bentley leaked a breathy recording of her then-husband sex-talking a top staffer, which led to an investigation into the affair, into Mr. Bentley’s possible misuse of public funds to hide said affair, and ultimately, his resignation.
What a lot of folks didn’t know was while Mrs. Bentley was fiercely advocating for victims of domestic abuse during her time as First Lady, she was being verbally and emotionally abused at home—by our governor, a Republican who ran on a platform of traditional family values.
What a lot of us know now is white women overwhelmingly voted for Moore.
The American flag on a clip-art stiletto.
Instead of a broom, a shotgun.
At the prospect of putting women at the top of the ticket this year, a political scientist recently told a local newspaper, “[M]any Alabamians, especially men, don’t wish to be put in the position of having a woman governor, no matter how they vote.” A 53-year-old public school music teacher, a woman, told me, “I don’t typically vote for women running for office… I think women are more emotional than men; therefore, I think sometimes their emotions might get in the way. Too much estrogen going on.”
When I consider the environment where this year’s women candidates built their career, I can’t help but root for them despite our political differences. Their campaign ads are all similar: They’re family women. They’re fighters. They’re in power suits with pearls. They might put on gendered airs or hide behind patriarchal rhetoric, but I can’t help but wonder what it would look like if they owned up to who they really are.
I can’t help but wonder what message it would send to the rest of the country if Alabama of all places overcame this backwards thinking.
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“There’s a lot of people who still believe in the Good Old Boys’ club in Alabama.”
Jeff Vreeland would know. He’s the senior director of digital operations at the Prosper Group where he works with advocacy groups and conservative campaigns (like Alice Martin’s). He says things are changing in the wake of Moore.
“Exit polls and research since has shown that a large number of self-identified soccer moms abandoned the Republican party and voted with their conscience and said this is not going to be allowed,” he says. The women disgusted by Moore, Vreeland says, are younger, college-educated women with control over income and volunteer hours in their household.
Now, those women are putting money behind candidates. They’re looking into running themselves. And they aren’t concerned with playing politics like the old guard.
“These soccer moms are not necessarily leaving the Republican party in terms of conservative principles. But they are definitely leaving the Republican party.”
Their campaign ads are all similar: They’re family women. They’re fighters. They’re in power suits with pearls. They might put on gendered airs or hide behind patriarchal rhetoric, but I can’t help but wonder what it would look like if they owned up to who they really are.
We aren’t exactly staring down the barrel of equal representation here.
In total, as of mid-February, 11 women (six Democrats and five Republicans) qualified to run for statewide office here. The field includes four incumbents: Gov. Ivey, Chief Justice Stuart, and Representatives Terri Sewell, a Democrat, and Martha Roby, a Republican, who share the honor of being the first two women elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Alabama in 2010.
They’ll compete for seats in the primary, then possibly the general. Their numbers will thin.
I can’t shake the image of Agnes Baggett in the pearls and apron.
What “thing” will we point to in half a century that makes us all cringe? Moore, surely, will be a historical marker of our time: An old, white man who honest-to-God rode in on his horse to cast a ballot for himself in a race lost to progression. What about these women? What are we asking them to hide? How long will we continue to reduce women to a string of pearls or a pair of stilettos?
Right now, in Alabama, we have a chance to really see women differently as they have the opportunity to take over the state. And these women have a chance to make history, to change policy here, to send a message to the rest of the country.
What will they do with it?