Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s reelection could affirm political progress for women

September 23, 2022 3:33 am
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly is one of nine women serving as governor in the United States. But she's missing an opportunity to seize a political moment for reproductive rights, writes Eric Thomas. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas.

If you value women’s political progress, then the number of women governors in the United States right now might encourage you.

While the 9 women currently leading 50 states doesn’t approach a fair representation of women in the country, it is unmistakable progress. Consider that only 45 female governors have ever served in any capacity. The last few years have been a groundswell in that respect.

The progress for women in governors’ mansions becomes especially clear if you scan down a list of governors starting in the year 1775 and ending in 2020. The gubernatorial list of 2,388 names includes incredible mouthfuls like Xeonphon Overton Pindall from Arkansas and Pierre Auguste Charles Bourguignon Derbigny of Louisiana.

The list also features 185 men with names starting with William. Yes, 185 Williams. There have been four times as many men named William than the total number of female governors in our national history.

This advancing female empowerment becomes more significant with Laura Kelly as the current Democratic governor of Kansas, and doubly interesting with Kelly in a close general election race to remain in office. 

With Kelly’s help, Kansas sits near the top of states in electing women governors. Arizona has the most: two Democrats and two Republicans, all of them since 1988. 

Three other states have had three women governors: Kansas, Texas and New Hampshire. It’s easy to argue that Kansas has been the most significant because it elected all three.

In Texas in 1925, Miriam Ferguson became the second woman governor nationwide, but she was elected as a surrogate for her husband. And her two terms in office count for two of the three in Texas state history. With that said, the energy to elect women in Texas doesn’t look vigorous.

Similarly, in New Hampshire, only two of their female governors were elected, with the third assuming office after the death of the governor in 1982. That’s a mixed history as well.

As a contrast, all three women governors from Kansas have been elected, and the first, Democrat Gov. Joan Finney, was the first to defeat an incumbent governor. Kathleen Sebelius was reelected to a second term in 2006, before moving on to serve in President Obama’s cabinet.

Kelly’s reelection would also distinguish Kansas because she could join eight other women governors who have served eight years as the heads of their states.

However, the Kelly campaign seems hesitant to lean into Kelly’s identity as a woman. One way to measure this is by comparing the language on the campaign websites and news releases between Kelly’s campaign and her November rival Derek Schmidt. 

Schmidt’s website leans into his positions on issues directly affecting women and regarding issues of gender. The campaign’s “Newsroom” section includes headlines including “Schmidt slams Kelly for lying in new ad about Fairness in Women’s Sports” and “AG Derek Schmidt proposes to eliminate state sales tax on diapers, feminine hygiene products.” Schmidt’s campaign is aggressively claiming this ground in the campaign — even if that posturing comes from disingenuous wording like “Fairness in Women’s Sports.”

Click on the “Where We Stand” section on Schmidt’s website and you will find a section hinting at Schmidt’s opposition to abortion rights, featuring the images of a newborn baby’s foot cradled by an adult hand. The endorsements include Kansans for Life, Susan B. Anthony Prolife America, and Kansas Family Voice, all of which oppose abortion.

If Schmidt only hints at his stances, the Kelly campaign’s public image seems almost scrubbed on issues of gender and feminism. To be fair, the website is almost comically simple, with only a handful of pages to explore. So, it’s unclear what Kelly’s stances are regarding almost everything. Her platform seems vague, if not vacant. 

Curious about her reaction to the defeat of the Kansas constitutional amendment regarding abortion rights? I couldn’t find anything on her website about the landmark vote affirming women’s rights. 

Kelly’s missed opportunity might be her campaign’s reluctance to seize a political moment when reproductive rights could direct voters to Kelly. Just look at the voter registration data after the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. The New York Times reported in August that “more than 70 percent of newly registered voters in Kansas were women.” In a race that is likely to be decided by only a few percentage points, women voters are likely to be decisive.

Perhaps the Kelly campaign assumes that Kelly’s identity as a woman will implicitly signal to voters that she will support abortion rights, contraceptive rights and other liberal causes. However, this passive stance fails to harness the grassroots enthusiasm from Democratic activists and voters who were energized to vote no in the Aug. 2 referendum. Public signaling on these issues matters to people who could invigorate her campaign. 

Notably, both Republican and Democratic tickets are split by gender. Kelly is running with her Lt. Gov. David Toland, while Schmidt has selected Katie Sawyer as his running mate. (Sawyer would become the second female lieutenant governor in Kansas, after Sheila Frahm, who served 1995-1996.) Both campaigns are aiming for broad appeal, regardless of the voter’s gender.

Number of women governors each year 1925-2022

In looking back at women governors, I compiled data to show how many female governors served, if only for a short time, during a given year. The graph of that data unmistakably shows progress. The 1920s and 1930s featured a few outlier female governors, mostly serving because of their connections to their husbands. Most sobering was the stretch from 1934-1967 when no women governor stepped into office in any state or territory. 

The woman who interrupted that 33-year streak of only men governors? Lurleen Wallace, the wife of avowed white supremacist George Wallace, became the governor of Alabama. However, she admitted that she yielded to her husband’s policies and decisions as he hovered as a de facto governor. 

Leaving behind those scattered notions of early female governors, the progress since 1975 has been an almost entirely straight upward line. The increasing willingness of voters to elect women — paired with more women on the ballot — is clear.

Correction: Gov. Joan Finney, the state’s first female governor, was a Democrat.

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Eric Thomas
Eric Thomas

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, a nonprofit that supports student journalism throughout the state. He also teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He lives in Leawood with his wife and two children.