One hundred sixty nine years ago, on July 19, 1848, a group of 200 women got together in Seneca Falls, New York to convene the first-ever women’s rights convention. They drafted and approved a Declaration of Sentiments, rooted in the same natural law as the American Declaration of Independence, but with a female twist.
Some of their grievances echoed those of the colonists. Taxation without representation became she is compelled “to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice.” Others addressed very specific issues, such as the subservient position of women under divorce, property, and employment laws. Of course, at its very top, the Declaration noted that women were never able to exercise “her inalienable right” to vote.
But, it is the overall thrust of the document that was and still is important: Women have a voice and want to use it to contribute to political discourse.
I often speak to high school and college aged women about leadership. Without fail, they all shake their heads when I tell them that Mississippi was the very last state to ratify the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, giving women the right to vote. There is a collective gasp when I tell them that Mississippi did not ratify it until 1984, more than sixty years after it became a part of the Constitution on August 18, 1920.
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They are disappointed, but not surprised. They see what the rest of us do: Very few women in leadership positions in public service in our great State. Mississippi is one of only two states in the nation to have never sent a woman to Washington, D.C. to represent us in the national arena. We have never had a female governor either. In fact, throughout our two-hundred-year history, only four women have been elected to statewide office – and two of those women, myself included, are serving right now.
Moreover, Mississippi ranks 46th in the nation for the proportion of women in our legislature. Women make up less than 14 percent of today’s Mississippi Legislature. At our peak, women represented almost 18 percent in 2013. But, it has only been since 1993 that we even made it into double digits. Our representation in office hardly reflects the fact that women make up 51.5 percent of our population.
As our elected leaders consider important issues that impact our daily lives today and well into the future, women’s perspectives add an important dimension to the debates. A 2016 study of women in the Canadian public service found that women even bring a different style of leadership, one that is less hierarchical and more inclusive, as well.
That is why I am so pleased that the Stennis Center for Public Service is bringing a Ready to Run program to Mississippi. Ready to Run is a non-partisan campaign training program that encourages and trains women to get involved in public service. They help women understand the nuts and bolts of running for office themselves or running other people’s campaigns. They also help women find the path to getting appointed positions or becoming involved in civic life other ways.
At a time when people are increasingly skeptical that bipartisanship can exist, Ready to Run is bringing together a variety of women leaders in Mississippi politics from both Parties for its August 19 program. And, that program is jointly sponsored by both the Mississippi Republicans and Mississippi Democrats. In every aspect, Ready to Run seems a very natural project for the Stennis Center, which was established to promote public service as “a noble calling” and “foster relationships” in public life.
Much like the women who met at Seneca Falls 169 years ago, women are not monolithic in what we believe or what issues we prioritize. We are just as much individuals when it comes to our thoughts and values as men are. But, we undoubtedly have different life experiences that can enrich the public debate.
Encouraging women to run for office and seek a more prominent role in public life is good for our State today. More importantly, it will have a snowball effect on female leadership in Mississippi tomorrow as more young women find role models in our elected and appointed leaders. I hope that one day when I tell young women that Mississippi ratified women’s suffrage the same year that “Footloose” — the Kevin Bacon original version — was out in theaters, they will laugh because they just cannot imagine a time when Mississippi was so slow to include women in public life.
Lynn Fitch is Treasurer of the State of Mississippi, first elected in 2011 and re-elected in 2015.