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Senate candidate Khristy Wilkinson talks to friends Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016 Jefferson's.

Twenty years ago, when Chattanooga voters to the polls to elect a mayor and city council, there were 32 names on the ballot.

Only five were women.

In 2008, when Chattanoogans voted on the president, U.S. senators and representatives, state legislators and city council members, there were 52 names on the ballot.

Nine were women.

And Tuesday, when voters decide the mayor and city council members once again, the ballot will be disproportionately male-heavy.

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Patricia Wente, Nicola Crisp, Edna Varner and Rachel Schulson
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David Cook

Twenty-one men on the ballot.

Four women.

Why?

Why, in this Gig City, global-business-attracting, renaissance, Best Outdoor City, Best Town Ever, are our ballots so female-light? Why has there never been a female mayor here? (Knoxville? Yes. Nashville? Of course. Clarksville and Smyrna, even.)

Why don't more Chattanooga women run for office?

"It's social and cultural norms," said Holly Ashley, executive director of the Chattanooga Women's Leadership Institute, or CWLI.

In 1920, when women won the right to vote, much of America viewed women as the weaker sex, the born caretakers and housekeepers, the delicate flowers unable to handle the stress of politics. Close to a century later, the residue of such ideas remains. Add in a media that readily sexualizes and objectifies girls and women, and now, running for office means women must fight not one but two campaigns:

The first: to be elected.

The second: to be seen as electable.

"We're not always seen as leaders," said Ashley.

For the last 20 years, CWLI has been working to change that. Now with 600 members, CWLI actively promotes, mentors and trains women for leadership positions, including a politics-specific workshop launching this fall.

Here in Chattanooga, women hold only 10 percent of board seats on publicly traded companies. Out of 132 state legislators, only 22 are women.

On the nine-member Hamilton County Commission, there's only one woman. The same 9:1 imbalance is true for the Chattanooga City Council.

A big part of the problem? Women who do run aren't connected in the male-entrenched party system of fundraising and party-support networking.

Yes, there have been pioneers: Tommie Brown. Mai Bell Hurley. Marilyn Lloyd. JoAnne Favors. Rhonda Thurman. Marti Rutherford. Brenda Bailey.

But they are the exception more than the rule.

"There truly is an implicit bias against women in the political sphere," said Khristy Wilkinson, who ran for Senate District 10 last fall against incumbent Todd Gardenhire. "This bias makes it harder to be taken seriously as a candidate, harder to raise money, harder to win votes, and thus harder to get elected."

During the campaign a man went up to Wilkinson's husband and thanked him for letting Wilkinson run. Another woman asked Wilkinson point-blank who would care for her children if she won, a question not asked of male candidates. Or which beauty treatment she preferred. She noticed a growing sense of shame when identifying herself as a stay-at-home mom before large crowds. The sense that what she wore somehow mattered more than what she said.

But the deepest cut of all?

"There are still many women who believe that women do not belong in politics," Wilkinson said.

Where does such sexism originate? What, exactly, are we teaching our girls and young women? About leadership? About their role in the world?

"As girls, we are not taught to envision ourselves in leadership positions or positions of power," Wilkinson said. "We are taught to sublimate ourselves to the leadership of others, to care about what we look like and how genteel and 'feminine' we are."

It's a Catch-22: To win in the world of politics, women must be assertive, bold, confident, and yes, aggressive. Yet those are the very same virtues society discourages in girls and young women. Go to the movies. Turn on the TV. Ask yourself: What are women doing? Most often, they're sexualized, trivialized or both.

"Women who see their value as visual or sexual objects are not only less like to run for political office, they are less likely to vote," Wilkinson said.

We also must ask: What are we teaching boys and men about gender and leadership? About girls and women and efficacy and power?

Because until our ballots reflect true representation and gender parity, then our ballots are incomplete and invalid. And we as a city should be embarrassed and disgraced, because ballots reflect society and a way of seeing the world.

"Without some major paradigm shift," Wilkinson said, "women will continue to be underrepresented in government."

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.

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