Meet the W.Va. Women Challenging the Political Norm for Female Candidates

Nov 5, 2018

West Virginians don’t vote for women.

Democratic candidate in West Virginia’s 1st Congressional District Kendra Fershee says that’s what a man told her on the campaign trail before the primary election in May of this year.

“[He] encouraged me to drop out of the race because I’m a woman, said I won’t be able to win because people won’t vote for me,” Fershee recalled.

Kendra Fershee, the Democratic nominee for West Virginia’s 1st Congressional District, speaks at a candidate event in Morgantown, West Virginia, in October.
Credit Justin Hayhurst / 100 Days in Appalachia

From a historical perspective, the gentleman isn’t necessarily wrong. West Virginians have only sent two women to Washington to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito served in the House from 2001 to 2015 before taking her current seat in the Senate and Elizabeth Kee represented the state from 1951 to 1965. Kee was elected to the position six times after her husband, who served in the position from 1933 to 1951, died.

But unlike this gentleman predicted, when it comes to Fershee, the people did vote for her. In fact, in all three of the state’s Congressional districts, West Virginians will be able to vote for a woman on November 6.

In this second “Year of the Woman,” West Virginia could join the nation in voting more women into office.

Nationally, More Women are Running for Congress Than Ever Before

Political pundits deemed 1992 the first “Year of the Woman.” The year before, a Congressional panel of white men questioned Anita Hill, an African American law professor, over allegations of sexual harassment against then-Supreme Court nominee, now Justice Clarence Thomas.

Following the elections that year, the number of women holding a seat in Congress increased by two thirds, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

This year, CAWP data shows 235 women are on the ballot for a seat in the U.S. House and another 22 for Senate, a drastic increase over previous elections. A majority of those candidates are Democrats, like Fershee, and their ability to follow through with a general election win could mean major changes for the nation’s political priorities.

A screenshot of the data from the Center for American Women in Politics.
Credit CAWP/Rutgers University

Historically, though, there have been a number of barriers for women running for office. CAWP studies have shown that politically minded women tend to come from careers where they make less money, like teaching or social work, so not only do they lack the independent wealth, but they also lack a network of wealthy friends to help fund their campaigns.

Women are still seen as the primary caregivers for their families, so female candidates with children have had trouble winning elections in the past, and it typically takes being asked for a woman to step into a race.

But in 2018, CAWP’s Associate Director Jean Sinzdak says all of those things are changing. And the West Virginia women running for Congress prove it.

“Moms Do Hard Things”

Kendra Fershee never thought she would run for office, but after the 2016 election, she wanted to see new and more relatable leadership in her state and in her country. So, she tried to convince women who were active in her community to run for office.

Instead, what Fershee heard was, “It’s a great idea, but I think you should do it.”

Candidate for West Virginia’s 1st Congressional District Kendra Fershee attended a candidate forum in Grafton, West Virginia, on Oct. 16 to speak with local voters.
Credit Justin Hayhurst / 100 Days in Appalachia

The sentiment was met with hesitation when Fershee thought about her responsibilities as a mother and as a law professor at West Virginia University. She said she discussed the possibility with her husband and fretted over the impact to her family.

“[But] he finally just said, ‘Time out. Do you mean to tell me that you think it’s a bad thing for our children to see their mother run for Congress?’” Fershee recalled. “And that moment was very pivotal for me because I had been thinking about it all wrong.”

Over the course of her campaign, Fershee has not only embraced, but emphasized her identity as a mother. She believes that as a mom, she is in tune with what is going on in her community, especially in schools, and it helped her relate to a wide population of working West Virginia women.

“Moms do hard things and we need more moms and we need more moms doing hard things,” Fershee said.

That message, of being a hardworking mother, it’s being used in campaigns across the country this election cycle. Women have traditionally tried to downplay their role as a mother, Sinzdak said, but women in 2018 are using motherhood as an asset.

“The traditional advice had been to fit yourself into a mold of what the usual candidate looks like, but the usual candidate had been older and white and male,” Sinzdak said. “But what we’ve seen so far [in 2018] are ads where [the candidate says] this is one of the reasons that I’d be a good elected official, because I’m a mother of young children and I understand these issues in our community because of that.”

Nobody Asked Her to Run, But She’s Doing it Anyway

Talley Sergent isn’t exactly a political outsider.

The Democratic candidate in West Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District, Sergent has experience working for former U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the U.S. State Department and chaired Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign for president in West Virginia.

But when she decided to run for Congress, Sergent said she didn’t have the support of the national Democratic Party.

“Nobody asked me to run to be quite honest,” Sergent said, and, according to Sinzdak, that usually makes a difference when it comes to women running for office.

Candidate for the West Virginia 2nd Congressional District Talley Sergent speaks sits at a lunch counter at the Smokehouse in Charleston, West Virginia, speaking to a potential voter who works in the restaurant.
Credit Justin Hayhurst / 100 Days in Appalachia

Nobody Asked Her to Run, But She’s Doing it Anyway

Talley Sergent isn’t exactly a political outsider.

The Democratic candidate in West Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District, Sergent has experience working for former U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the U.S. State Department and chaired Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign for president in West Virginia.

But when she decided to run for Congress, Sergent said she didn’t have the support of the national Democratic Party.

“Nobody asked me to run to be quite honest,” Sergent said, and, according to Sinzdak, that usually makes a difference when it comes to women running for office.

CAWP research has proven that women will enter a political race in much higher numbers when they are asked to by a political influencer– an elected official or political party representative– but for men, being asked matters very little.

“They don’t necessarily care about whether or not [political influencers] like them,” Sinzdak said.”

This year, however, Sinzdak said, “We’re seeing women more likely to say, ‘well I’m not going to wait to be asked, I’m just going to go do it.’ I think that is a cultural shift that we see happening.”

But where Sergent does conform to the traditional mold of female candidates is in her passion for creating change in one specific policy area: health care.

“Right now, the American healthcare system is under an all-out assault by the Congress. [The U.S. House] voted over 50 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act that would take away some protections for people with pre-existing conditions and would actually hurt West Virginia more than any other state,” Sergent said.

Aside from her focus on fixing the nation’s health care system, Sergent has also put an emphasis on bi-partisan politics as she campaigns through the state’s largest geographic district, which stretches from the banks of the Ohio River in Jackson County across to the tip of the Eastern Panhandle.

She believes politicians in Washington put too much focus on driving a specific party’s political agenda and not enough on the real issues, but when it comes to Pres. Trump, Sergent said she will work with him.

“If Donald Trump is doing right by West Virginia, I will support that. If he’s not, you better believe I’m going to stand up to him like any other West Virginia woman would,” Sergent said.

The Republican Who’s Bucking the Trend

In as much as Sergent’s name is known in West Virginia’s Democratic political circles, so is the name of Carol Miller, except on the Republican side of the aisle.

Del. Carol Miller, Republican candidate for West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District, speaks on the floor of the West Virginia House of Delegates.
Credit Perry Bennett / West Virginia Legislative Photography

From Huntington, Miller is a member of the West Virginia House of Delegates, a seat she held for 10 years before deciding to run in West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District. Miller has held leadership positions at the state level within her party, having chaired the West Virginia House of Delegates’ Committee on Small Business, Entrepreneurship and Economic Development and served as both the Assistant Majority Leader and Majority Whip, positions of influence in the chamber.

On her campaign website, Miller writes she’s running for Congress “to support West Virginia values and support President Trump,” but she has rarely given interviews or made public speeches during her campaign.

Of the three women running for Congressional seats on West Virginia’s general election ballot, Miller is the only one who has run for office before, she’s the only one not challenging an incumbent Congressman and she’s the only Republican.

But in a year where a historic number of women are running for office, a majority of those women don’t have a lot in common with Miller when it comes to political stances.

“There’s a surge of women candidates running for Congress and they are mostly all Democrats,” Sinzdak said, “and it’s not unusual for the underdog party to be the more motivated party going into midterm elections, but it’s just the degree to which they are motivated.”

Just 52 Republican women are running for Congress of the 235 on the ballot. Sinzdak said that could be because of motivation, but also because the majority party tends to back its already seated incumbents, therefore, more Democratic women are stepping up to run against male Congressmen already holding their seats.

But, according to Sinzdak, it also has to do with representation within the party’s themselves.

“Democratic women far outpace Republican women in terms of their representation within their party’s caucus, and that’s been a trend that’s been going on for a long time,” Sinzdak said.

Women in Office

Despite the challenges they may face on the campaign trail, Sinzdak said voters will choose women just as often as they do men when they actually put their names on the ballot.

And aside from having a government that is demographically representative of our country, Sinzdak said there are some great outcomes when women are elected.

“We know that women office holders bring a new perspective to the policy-making process,” she said. “They’re more likely to bring in marginalized groups to the conversation or groups that have not otherwise been engaged.”

Women are also more likely to reach across party lines and attempt to build consensus, “which is something that we all really need more than ever these days,” Sinzdak added.

This story was produced as part of a social justice reporting collaboration between Morgan State University’s College of Global Journalism and Communication and the Reed College of Media at West Virginia University.