For nearly half a century, starting in the mid-1960s, a woman held at least one statewide political office in Kansas.
Other women officeholders may be less familiar. But all reflected the great tradition of gender inclusion in Kansas, which was one of the first states to extend voting to women.
Sadly, the women-in-office streak came to an end in 2015. In January of that year, all eight statewide elected positions — two U.S. senators, the governor and lieutentant governor, attorney general, treasurer, secretary of state, and insurance commissioner — were once again held exclusively by men.
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Some said the change probably reflected a fluke of history and politics. “It’s always hard to tell if something is a trend, or just the way it happened to turn out at the time,” Clay Barker, then the head of the state’s GOP, said that year.
While the state’s two senators won’t be on the 2018 ballot, the other six statewide officers are. And with less than a year until the election, only one woman — a teenager — has filed for one the races.
No woman is running for governor from either major party. No women have declared for attorney general, or treasurer, or insurance commissioner. No woman has yet been mentioned as a potential lieutenant governor candidate.
It’s troubling. Women officeholders in highly visible jobs not only provide valuable perspectives on state problems, they can serve as an inspiration to younger women pondering a political career.
There is no shortage of highly-qualified women candidates in Kansas. The state Legislature is sprinkled with skilled politicians: state Reps. Melissa Rooker, Cindy Holscher, Nancy Lusk and Susan Humphries come to mind.
On the Senate side, president Susan Wagle is qualified for statewide office. Sens. Molly Baumgardner, Laura Kelly, Barbara Bollier, and Vicki Schmidt might have statewide appeal. Other women candidates from city halls and county courthouses would be on the list.
Yet no one has stepped forward. Wagle took herself out of the governor conversation, as did U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins, another highly qualified candidate.
Only Lucy Steyer, a teenager from Lenexa, has taken steps to run — for secretary of state. At least 26 men have filed papers indicating a statewide candidacy.
There are different reasons for this disappointing picture. Some think the high cost of statewide campaigns, and the need for campaigning across a big state, have deterred women from running.
Others blame a toxic political culture. Politics is nastier, they say, than it has ever been.
Yet those explanations sound slightly hollow when you consider the state’s history. In 1996, five women — Kassebaum, Sebelius, Sen. Shelia Frahm, Attorney General Carla Stovall and Treasurer Sally Thompson — served at the same time.
The state was better for it.
We urge both major parties to work harder to find qualified statewide candidates who are women. That might include stronger promises of fundraising and financial support, as well as technical advice. Donors should find women to support.
Women candidates should step forward, too. That’s true at all levels of government — today’s mayor is tomorrow’s governor. Political colleagues should urge women office seekers to file statewide.
And voters should demand that women find a place on the ballot. There are more women than men in Kansas. Women have helped Kansas prosper for generations.
They can do so again, in 2018.