Florida’s Old Capitol seen through the colonade of the New Capitol. Credit: Michael Moline
In all of the nation’s history, only a few dozen women have assumed the governor’s office in their states. Florida has not been one of those states, although women have been able to vote since the 1920s.
More than a dozen other states have yet to elect a woman as a top executive officer. However, some states have had multiple women serve as governors over the years.
With the 2022 gubernatorial election campaigns in full throttle in Florida, only one woman is a main contender for the governor’s post. She’s Nikki Fried, an attorney, a Democrat, the state’s agriculture commissioner and an elected state Cabinet member.
If she wins the August primary, she’ll face Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has stockpiled a massive campaign war chest for the November election.
Fried may or may not break the governor’s glass ceiling in this race, in part because it’s still so difficult.
Still facing barriers
The Florida Phoenix asked former female candidates and researchers in gender politics about experiences on the campaign trail for women, who still face barriers in finances and familial obligations in running for office.
Kelly Dittmar is director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics, a unit of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.
She said those barriers exist more so with women running for higher state offices, such as governor. She referred to the realm of politics as a “gendered institution, whereby power has been allocated to men and masculinity for a very long time.”
She told the Phoenix:
“And so that deep-seated sort of roots of men’s power in politics has had to be disrupted time again in U.S. history. So women have always been fighting against the norm or the status quo in order to gain political power. It’s been more work.
“It then creates a socialization process whereby women are less likely to see themselves in political leadership, may be less likely to be encouraged to run for political office and to participate in politics in more formal ways. And so we’ve had to combat against that, as well.”
The center’s website says that the first woman to take on the role of governor in U.S. history was Nellie Tayloe Ross, from 1925 through 1926, in Wyoming. Her husband, William B. Ross, was governor before her but died midterm and she won a special election to finish his term.
Since then, there have been 45 women who have served as governor, according to the center’s website.
“Just as we had to do generations ago to get women to both support and ultimately participate once they won the right to vote, because this is not something that was seen as the right space or place for women to be a part of. So we’re still combating those biases about who is expected and who should be in political leadership,” Dittmar explained.
“So our expectations of executive leadership have been even sort of the most aligned with perceptions of evaluations of masculinity and men. And so, that kind of all of those cultural stereotypes and biases that institutional exclusion of women from politics from our earliest days in United States all contribute to where we are now,” she said.
The center website outlines the history of women governors and it’s noticeable that more recent decades have churned out more of them. There have also been women who have served in the executive role in U.S. territories, such as Puerto Rico and Guam.
But the Phoenix is solely focusing on the 50 states and whether they have had women governors.
Some good news?
The history of women governors show that more women are getting elected to the position more often.
In 1991, for example, three women started their gubernatorial terms. In 2003, five women started their terms. In 2019, seven women started their terms as governors of their states.
As of today, nine states have women serving as governor: Kate Brown (D) in Oregon, Kay E. Ivey (R) in Alabama, Kimberly Reynolds (R) in Iowa, Laura J. Kelly (D) in Kansas, Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) in New Mexico, Janet T. Mills (D), in Maine, Kristi Noem (R) in South Dakota, Gretchen E. Whitmer (D) in Michigan, and Kathy C. Hochul (D) in New York.
All of these women are running for reelection in the position in the 2022 elections except for Kate Brown of Oregon, who is term-limited.
In Florida, Commissioner Fried will face U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist in the primary. He was formerly a Republican governor, attorney general and education commissioner but later switched to the Democratic Party.
State Sen. Annette Taddeo of South Florida had been running against Crist and Fried, but just recently dropped out to run for Congress. Taddeo endorsed Crist in the gubernatorial election, not Fried.
The Phoenix reached out to Taddeo to speak about her experience running for Florida governor as a woman, but her team said that they were now focused on Taddeo’s run for Congress and didn’t want to discuss a race she’s no longer in.
Fried has been highlighting Florida’s lack of a woman governor. On June 15, she tweeted: “We’re going to defeat Ron DeSantis and elect Florida’s first woman governor.”
Men aren’t held to the same standards
That said, women candidates in Florida have tried for the governor’s office before, to no avail.
Most recently, Gwen Graham, a former congresswoman from North Florida and whose father served as governor, made a bid for the 2018 Democratic nominee but lost to Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum.
Gillum, who would have been the first Black governor in Florida had he won, ultimately lost to DeSantis, the Republican candidate.
Before that, Alex Sink, a Democrat and former chief financial officer of Florida, tried for the governor’s position in 2010. She won the Democratic nomination but lost in a very close race to Republican Rick Scott. After serving two terms, he was elected a U.S. senator.
Sink believes things have changed for women candidates since she ran.
In an interview with the Phoenix, Sink said “there were a lot of nuances in terms of how I was presented as a female candidate as opposed to a male candidate.”
“I think people look at the way you’re dressed. They look at your hairstyle. You know, I wasn’t going to go out there and look like a floozy. And, you know, men just aren’t held to the same standards,” Sink told the Phoenix.
“I did a lot of work with speech coaches and making sure that my voice wasn’t shrill — remember, people would make fun of Hillary Clinton the way she laughed. There is the way you laugh, the expressions on your face. I have a very expressive face and my advisor was continually reminding me not to let emotions show on a face so much,” she said.
“Whether that’s right or wrong … those are all things that were going to be pretty, pretty important.”
She did ultimately lose to Scott, but she doesn’t believe it was explicitly because she was a women.
“When you lose an election — I can name 50 different reasons, and just didn’t have an overwhelming feeling that the reason I lost was because I was a woman,” she said.
“It’s hard for me to say whether or not there are still hidden biases against women serving in public offices, because we have Republican women serving in office. We have a Republican attorney general (Ashley Moody) — woman,” Sink said. “There’s probably hidden biases out there. It’s just, it’s not so obvious I think.”
Florida can elect a woman someday
She said she doesn’t know if 2022 will be the year Florida elects a woman governor.
But, “I think, in Florida, we can elect a woman. In fact, the first woman governor may very well be a Republican,” Sink said. She didn’t elaborate, but Florida’s top elected officials are Republicans, except for Fried, as well as the leaders in the GOP-controlled Legislature.
“And you know, women over the course of our lives, we have distractions, we have marriages, we have children, we have our own careers to build. And it just seems like men just kind of have an easier path,” Sink said.
Lucy Sedgwick is president of Ruth’s List Florida, an organization that helps Democratic pro-choice women mount political campaigns, offering training and support.
Sedgwick told the Phoenix that “when women run for office, they are judged at a different and a higher standard than their male counterparts.”
Women candidates must look and act the part, she said, “because when people imagine a politician, especially when they imagine the governor, they still picture a straight white man.”
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