Low Female Representation in Chattanooga, Hamilton County

Women are underrepresented in every level of government, especially in elected positions. Women make up 20 percent of the US Congress. The numbers only get worse at the state level, where 16% of the Tennessee General Assembly is female. Tennessee received a D- in political participation on the Status of Women report card from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. These trends are reflected at the local level.

Female underrepresentation also exists in Chattanooga and Hamilton County. Women hold 23% of elected and appointed offices in Hamilton County. In Chattanooga, it’s 21%.

When looking at specific offices, the numbers reflect Mirya Holman’s argument that women “running for offices traditionally considered ‘masculine’—which are most local offices— disadvantage women, but they may obtain some benefits when running for stereotypically ‘feminine’ offices like the city clerk and school board,” with women making up 44% of the Hamilton County School Board. In contrast, the Hamilton County Commission is 11% female, and the Chattanooga City Council is 22% female.

According to Alexander Aguado and George Frederickson, “Women bring to the table different priorities, performing more constituent services, and having different policy preferences than men,” which can improve the representation of all constituents.

This is relevant at all levels of government because, as Holman argues, “If women are underrepresented at the local level, this contributes to women’s continued lack of parity in state and national offices.”

Many factors must be considered to address underrepresentation. Women need to be recruited, encouraged, and supported by organizations and the political parties with which they are associated. Also, Kira Sanbonmatsu, Susan Carroll and Debbie Walsh find that women should be recruited from a wider range of professional fields and supplied the resources to run.

Chattanooga has made strides to correct this issue using some of the strategies mentioned above.

In 2015, Mayor Andy Berke established the Mayor’s Council for Women and named Councilwoman Dr. Carol Berz and State Representative JoAnne Favors co-chairs. The goal is to make “policy recommendations about issues affecting women within Chattanooga and across the region.”

The council has grown significantly since its creation. It hosted its first Women’s Policy Conference this year and is planning a second annual conference in February 2019. A survey of conference attendees revealed widespread concern over lack of female political participation. This means more than just running for office. It includes volunteering for campaigns, registering people to vote, and even voting themselves. As a result of this conference, a political participation subcommittee was formed and charged with the task of encouraging more women to be politically active.

The council takes pride in being open to all women.

“We’re nonpartisan. We have Republicans. We have Democrats. We have folks that don’t have any political persuasion. The thing that binds us is issues that relate around women,” Berz said. This approach allows them to reach “the most beautiful diversity of women,” which can yield robust policy solutions that focus on the needs of all women. She said women “have the imposter syndrome” and “need that extra push, that extra understanding.”

She believes women should run immediately and hopes female candidates in Hamilton County this year have been inspired by the council’s work.

Other groups in Chattanooga, like the Empower Women PAC, are helping women advance politically and professionally. April Goebeler, Dr. Kristie Wilder, Karen Poole, and Brenda McCoplin founded the PAC in 2017.

Goebeler said the PAC wants to “remove the barriers for women to run for office” and “connect women to the resources that are available.” They held a “training session on how to run for office if you’re a woman,” as well as “a young women’s training.” Along with training and resources, the PAC has recruited women to run this year, including Katherlyn Geter and Rosabelle Gorman for county commission and Jenny Hill for school board.

Although Hamilton County and Chattanooga haven’t reached parity, the number of women holding and running for office has increased. Thirteen women ran for office in 2014, and ten won their primary races. Seven ran in Hamilton County primaries this year, and only one lost. More women ran in 2014, but a greater percentage won primaries in 2018.

Eighty-six percent of the women who ran primaries in Hamilton County are advancing to the August general election. This percentage is higher than the 2014, 2010, and 2006 elections. This shows that when women run in Hamilton County, they tend to win.

Year Won Primary Lost Total Percentage Won
2018 6 1 7 85.71%
2014 10 3 13 76.92%
2010 3 2 5 60.00%
2006 7 2 9 77.78%

NOTEMetro Ideas Project is a 501(c)3 Public Charity and thus does not endorse candidates for public office. This isn’t nor should be construed as support or an endorsement for any candidate, but rather an analysis of an important social issue in our community.