The Women of Kansas Are on the Move

One of the results of the 2018 midterm elections that didn’t get enough attention is that the country went from having four women serving as governors to nine. That is still far short of parity, but it is a huge improvement.

One of the newly elected female governors is Laura Kelly, who will serve as the third woman to hold the governorship of Kansas, following in the footsteps of Joan Finney (1991-1995) and Kathleen Sebelius (2003-2009). Kelly is the Democrat who defeated Republican Kris Kobach, known for his attacks on immigrants and as Trump’s point man on voter suppression. That result was a bit of a shocker in a state that had been entirely controlled by Republicans and voted for Trump by 20 points.

But the history of women and politics in the state of Kansas is revealing. The state sent the first woman to serve a full term in the senate without her husband having previously served in Congress—Nancy Kassebaum—who was first elected in 1978. While Kassebaum is a Republican, she served during a time when it was possible to be a real moderate in the GOP. Today, she is a vocal critic of Donald Trump and endorsed Democrat Laura Kelly in the Kansas governor’s race.

Going back even further, Kansas was home to a true “populist” movement back in the 1890s that was spurred by crop failures and farm foreclosures. The two champions of that movement were Mary Elizabeth Lease and Annie Diggs.

Though the two women disagreed on certain principles, they each helped place Populist candidates in office. Lease became one of the best-known Populists in the state. She believed in racial and gender equality and claimed, “Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street.” Diggs wrote for Populist newspapers and “became convinced that the reforms which we sought were after all economical rather than moral questions.”

The world of white male politics didn’t take kindly to these women, especially Mary Elizabeth Lease.

The Wellington Monitor didn’t mince words when it called her “a miserable character of womanhood and hideously ugly of features and foul of tongue.”

And, in Raleigh, N.C., the newspaper likened Lease to John Brown, saying she invaded the South “with the declaration that the Negro should be made the equal of the white man and that all differences between the sexes should be obliterated. Great God, what next from Kansas?”

On the question of what’s next from Kansas, it appears that over 120 years later, some women are once again making waves. In the last two weeks, three Kansas state legislators—all women—have left the Republican Party to become Democrats. The first was state senator Barbara Bollier.

Mission Hills Sen. Barbara Bollier this morning officially changed her party affiliation from Republican to Democrat…

“Morally, the party is not going where my compass resides,” Bollier said. “I’m looking forward to being in a party that represents the ideals that I do, including Medicaid expansion and funding our K-12 schools.”

Next came state senator Dinah Sykes.

Here is how she explained her decision in a press release:

I am a moderate person who represents a moderate and pragmatic district that expects me to focus on issues and solutions that impact their day-to-day lives. Increasingly, I see the Republican party focusing on issues and approaches that divide our country. I do not agree with that approach.

On Wednesday, state representative Stephanie Clayton joined Bollier and Sykes.

Clayton, of Overland Park, called out what she described as “recent moves to support chaos in public policy” that she said had caused her great concern. She said she first ran for office in 2010, when her daughter was in first grade, because of a lack of stable funding for public education.

“Leaders in the Kansas House and Senate have now indicated that they will seek to scrap the bipartisan education plan achieved over the last two years, just as we are so close to solving this problem and ending the cycle of school litigation,” Clayton said in a statement.

“My Republican Party, then, seems to no longer represent or serve the interests of the 19th District, Johnson County, or the State of Kansas,” she said.

As you might imagine, these women are currently receiving the same kind of treatment from Kansas Republicans that was dished out to Mary Elizabeth Lease over 100 years ago.

The current exodus in Kansas is primarily fueled by Republican Governor Sam Brownback’s failed experiment with tax cuts, which created massive deficits. That led the state’s supreme court to demand that Kansas live up to its constitutional requirement to adequately fund education, which Republicans have still failed to fulfill. As we witnessed with teacher strikes in several states over the last year, even Republican women aren’t willing to stand by and sacrifice the education of their children on the alter of tax cuts for the wealthy.

So the question once again becomes: “What next from Kansas?” Is this the end of the story, or are these women setting a trend? Are these moves unique to Kansas, or will we see similar trends in other states? Are there male Republicans who will follow their lead? To answer those questions, it might be a good idea to keep an eye on Kansas.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.