Progress in Kentucky but room to grow
“I am a great believer in teams,” says Martha Layne Collins, recalling her management style when she served from 1983-1987 as the first and so far the only female governor in Kentucky history. “Men think of things we don’t. We think of things they don’t.”
Collins, State Rep. Samara Heavrin of Leitchfield and Kentucky League of Women Voters Immediate Past President Wanda
“Bonnie” Lynch spoke earlier this year at the Louisville Forum’s annual dinner. The topic? The Women’s Suffrage Centennial: What it Means for Kentucky Women Today.
A common theme runs through Collins’ accomplishments—her power of persuasion. “I would say ‘Hey,’” she says, pounding her fist in her palm, “I need your help.”
She convinced Toyota to build its first wholly owned U.S. automotive manufactur-ing facility in Georgetown and persuaded the Kentucky General Assembly to approve her comprehensive education plan.
The Shelby County native places another memory alongside those significant accom-plishments: speaking to schoolchildren on the Capitol steps.
“The boys were looking at me differently than the girls were,” Collins muses. “Because it was like, ‘Oh, well, my mom could be governor.’ So, it was an awakening. It really impressed me to see that.”
Her groundbreaking election came 63 years after women earned the right to vote.
As the nation in 2020 commemorates the centennial of women’s suffrage, Kentucky election records show that since the 1980s, not only have more women than men registered to vote, but women also out-pace men in voter turnout. A century after the 19th Amendment became law, Kentucky statistics show that women indeed have equal access to the ballot box.
Yet that has not translated into gender parity in who actually gets elected, a source of frustration for another female Kentucky pioneer, Wanda “Bonnie” Lynch, the first Black president of the Kentucky League of Women Voters.
“Really, we ought to be running the place,” Lynch says. She was elected to two terms on the Christian County School Board, again as the first Black woman in that position.
“We’ve come a long way but we’ve got a long way to go. We’re not done yet,” Lynch says. “Look at the makeup of the House and Senate here in Kentucky … it should be at least 50-50 that we’re in Frankfort help-
ing with the policy making, the writing of the bills and that sort of thing. We need more women involved. They’ve got to be there.”
In 1992, women made up only 4% of the Kentucky General Assembly, a percent-age that grew to 17.3% in 2018. By 2019, when Heavrin won a special election for the 18th District, representing Grayson County and part of Hardin County, she brought that percentage to 24.8%, nearly a quarter of the General Assembly. Heavrin is a pio-neer in her own right. She won that seat when she was 27, becoming the youngest woman ever elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives.
Challenges and supports
Despite her experience working in both Washington, D.C., and Frankfort, Heavrin recalls Kentucky State Treasurer Allison Ball telling her that, “women don’t believe in them-selves to run; they have to be asked to run.”
“And I thought, ‘Is that really true?’” Heavrin says. “And it is true, because I had to be asked to run before I could even consider myself running in that position because I was hard on myself.”
Lynch says a strong network of friends and family have supported her efforts, but gender still presents several challenges for female candidates.
“It is difficult for women to fundraise, and overall, it’s hard to balance family and poli-tics.” Lynch says, “And the third one, they call it ‘double binding.’ You want to come across as a strong woman, but not an aggressive woman. So, it’s difficult to find that balance.”
Heavrin credits her experience as a high schooler on the Kentucky Electric Cooperatives Washington Youth Tour as “a monumental and pivotal moment in my life, because it made me realize that that was an option for a woman, that it was an option to go and serve your people in Washington, D.C., but still be a proud Kentuckian.”
Warren RECC sponsored Heavrin’s Youth Tour experience. She is now a consumer-member of Nolin RECC.
“Whenever you can invest and grow some-thing, it’s going to bloom,” Heavrin says. “It’s going to blossom. And that’s exactly what we need here in Kentucky right now with our youth.”
“I’m really proud of the women of Kentucky,” Collins says. “You’ve got women all over the state that really serve their fellow man. And they are educated, and they are trained and dedicated, and they are hard working. And I think it’s wonderful. I’m proud to be a woman. I’m proud to be one of the crew.”
Learn more about women’s suffrage at the Louisville’s Frazier History Museum. It has an exhibit, called What is a Vote Worth? Suffrage Then and Now, that examines the women’s suffrage movement in the U.S. while zeroing in on features of the movement in Kentucky. The exhibit runs through February 2021. You can call the museum at (502) 753-5663.