As of 2017, women hold about 20 percent of all 535 seats in the U.S. Congress. According to Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, the number is 84 in the United States House of Representatives and 21 in the U.S. Senate.
Local and state level statistics on average aren’t much different. But, efforts are underway to increase the number of women in politics.
The Institute for Women in Politics of Northwest Florida was incorporated in 2013 with the express purpose of getting more women serving in elected office across the region, which includes Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties.
Diane Mack is one of the founders and was the organization’s first president.
“We have gone from our original seven founding members to actually 71 members and we’re so excited by this growth and a lot of that membership growth has really happened in the last calendar year,” said Mack, adding that she’s encouraged more younger women are getting involved. Younger women often face more challenges having to balance their political ambitions with children and careers.
The Institute for Women in Politics has been officially tracking the numbers since 2014, finding that there were more women on the ballot then than in 2016. And, while the organization’s membership is up, Mack, who currently serves as secretary, says they really haven’t moved the needle much locally in terms of getting more women in office.
“We’ve seen better days on some of these elected bodies,” Mack said. “When I served on City Council in 2009-2010, there were four women council members; we’re down to two. There were once women on the Escambia County Commission at one point, too, Janice Gilley and Marie Young, by appointment of the governor; and now we have no women. Escambia County isn’t doing very well and neither is Santa Rosa County in terms of elected positions.”
In Escambia, there’s a better balance of female representation on the School Board and ECUA. Overall, women hold about a third of the elected offices in Escambia. The rate is about 23 percent in Santa Rosa and only slightly higher, about 24 percent, in Okaloosa.
On a state level, there have been few women from the region to serve in the Florida Legislature, namely Virginia Bass, Dee Dee Ritchie, Lois Benson and Holly Benson. A couple more could be added to that short list in 2018.
“Right now we have two pre-filed candidates, who are institute members, who are running for Clay Ingram’s District 1 seat,” Mack said, while also pointing that yet another woman is making plans to run for the District 2 seat that Frank White is vacating to run for Attorney General.
“Imagine that, in a position that through the history of the Florida House of Representatives, we’ve only had four women from Northwest Florida, all from Escambia County. We could wind up with two women elective representatives.
One of them could be Republican Rebekah Bydlak or Democrat Vicki Garrett, who are both seeking that District one seat, which is opening up due to term limits for Ingram.
Mack hopes many other women will throw their hat in the ring for seats at every level and the climate could be right for it. She notes research from the Center for American Women and Politics and numerous news articles suggesting the rapidly growing #MeToo movement could be the spark to make 2018 the “Year of the Woman” in U.S. politics.
“This sexual harassment is all an exercise in power and if you look at it, we women have the power to overcome this and the next natural step is taking on some political power,” declared Mack.
Although not quantifiable, she points to recent trends and the general feeling, particularly on the Democratic side of things, “Democratic women are ready to jump in for many positions and you know a lot of theirs is of course, anti-Trump.”
Much has been written about the intensification of the nation’s political divide during the tenure of President Donald Trump. Mack acknowledges that dealing with partisanship sometimes can be a bit tricky. However, to be part of the Institute for Women in Politics, she says party affiliation and ideology have to be left at the door.
“We do not advocate for anything other than promoting the civic and political leadership of women,” said Mack. “Whatever their issues, whatever they support, we don’t get into that. We avoid that entirely.”
For those who can agree to those terms, the organization provides a number or resources. For example, board members have committed to holding monthly networking events called Key Connections.
Also, they host prominent speakers who present educational programs. As an example, representatives from Governor Rick Scott’s office were brought in a few months ago to discuss what positions are available for appointment by the governor and how to go about applying for them.
Mack points out that there are dozens of appointed positions available that have an impact on state policy, and serving on such panels is a good place to start.
In the coming months, activities will include a public speaking workshop, featuring executive speech coach Daniel Pennington, to be held in January. In February, there will be a Key Connections event focused on how to get local government appointments. In March, there will be a political fundraising workshop.
On a personal level, Mack, who is a former Pensacola City Councilwoman and mayoral candidate, says she’s ready to mentor to any woman seeking to get their own political career off the ground.
“Because we tend to doubt ourselves and so I want to tell them, ‘Of course, you can do that. This is what you need to know and cry on my shoulder, whatever. Whatever you need, I’m there for you, whenever.’”
More details about the Institute for Women in Politics of Northwest Florida is available at iwpflorida.org. Amy Miller, director of the Port of Pensacola, now serves as the organization’s president.