Wichita Vice Mayor Janet Miller didn’t have any political experience when she decided to run for City Council more than 8 years ago.
“Unlike some folks, I never did imagine myself running for office or serving in public office," she says.
But after joining her neighborhood association and meeting her own City Council representative in District 6, she says the idea of serving on the council “evolved over time into something that I was interested in and maybe more specifically, became something I saw myself capable of doing.”
Now, both Miller and Wichita City Councilwoman Lavonta Williams are term-limited, and are leaving their positions at the end of the year. Brandon Johnson and Michael Kinard are vying for the District 1 seat Williams currently occupies. Two women—Cindy Claycomb and Sybil Strum--are on the ballot to replace Miller; whichever candidate wins next month will be the only woman on the city council.
“I don’t think that’s reflective of Wichita at large,” Miller says.
The situation isn’t unique to City Council: No women serve on the 5-member Sedgwick County Commission, and statewide, two-thirds of Kansas lawmakers are men.
“There are larger forces that tend to limit women running for office,” says Neal Allen, a professor of political science at Wichita State University. “Research in political science has shown that women tend to need more money raised and more support in their district to be willing to run than men do. So that often shrinks the candidate pool for women running for office.”
He says when it comes to the Wichita City Council, it’s also an issue of timing.
“Term limits affect the careers of any politician, and in this case, we have it affecting two women holding office,” he says.
He calls it a “chance occurrence,” but says it’s notable that so few women have chosen to run for either seat.
“It does show that whenever a group is underrepresented, it’s not that far to fall to one or to zero,”Allen says.
Miller says she encourages women to get involved in public service, whether it’s on the City Council, a PTA, or one of the city’s citizen advisory boards. But she notes that it can be intimidating to join a group when you don’t see yourself already represented.
“I do think it’s human nature to be able to envision ourselves becoming involved or doing something if we see people who look like ourselves doing that activity,” she says. “And that goes for both gender as well as ethnicity. If we see people who look like us, or are similar gender, it might feel more inviting to become involved in that activity. So I think yes, having more women would also encourage more women."
Women often don’t feel qualified to seek public office until someone asks them to, she says.
“And then that’s an exterior, outer validation that ‘Oh, I must be capable of doing that,'” she says. “My message to women is: Let’s not wait to be invited. If it’s of interest to us, let’s jump in of our own accord.”
Follow Nadya Faulx on Twitter @NadyaFaulx.
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