BIRMINGHAM, Alabama.-If Alabama Republican senate candidate Roy Moore had his way, all women here would probably be at home, in the kitchen. They certainly wouldn’t be running for office.
According to a "Law and Government" course co-authored by the conservative candidate in 2011, women should not be permitted to run for elected office. If they do run, the course argues, people have a moral obligation not to vote for them.
But many women in Alabama don’t seem to care about Moore’s position on that: a growing number of progressive women are announcing their candidacy in this deeply conservative state.
“I think what needs doing in our state is better leadership,” says Felicia Stewart, a businesswoman, mom-of-two and a lesbian who is running for the Alabama House in 2018. “And if regular people like me with a diverse background of experiences aren’t willing to step up and put our name in the hat, we’re gonna be in the same spot in 2018, 2020 and beyond. I’m not willing to let that happen.”
Across the country, more—and more diverse—women are running for office since Trump became president. Last month, local and state elections around the country were a real indicator that it’s starting to matter. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, November 8, 2017, was a night of “landmarks for women.” A number of women of color won prominent races from Virginia to New Jersey to Washington state, as did women from the LGBTQ community.
On the whole, Alabama is a deep red state, and change will likely come slow here. Of a total 140 state legislators in the state, just 15 percent are now women—17 in the House, and four in the Senate. Only Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Wyoming have fewer women. At the federal level, just two of the nine total U.S. Senators and member of Congress from Alabama are women.
And now, in the midst of a high-profile race for a Senate seat which has been dominated by accusations made by nine women that Moore engaged in sexual misconduct (at least four of the women were minors at the time), the fact that more women are running for office here has taken on new importance. Leaders like Stewart represent everything Moore stands against.
“If it were up to Roy Moore I wouldn’t be married,” Stewart says. “But I’d probably also be in jail. He’d like to see me behind bars. That’s unsettling.”
Moore regularly espouses extreme opposition to LGBT rights. In 2005, he said in a radio interview that "homosexual conduct should be illegal" and that homosexuality is "the same thing" as bestiality. The 2011 study guide Moore co-authored was part of a course for Vision Forum, a now-defunct evangelical organization in Texas that taught a version of “biblical patriarchy,” a set of beliefs that espouses male leadership over the home.
Stewart is not a conventional voice in Alabama politics, especially considering that she’s running in a Republican district. But she says she’s ready to have those “tough conversations.” In August she had a launch event where she introduced her wife and daughters in Birmingham.
“I’ve always told my daughters that if a Stewart girl sees something that needs doing she does it,” she says. “I thought this was a good opportunity for me to put my money where my mouth is.”
A hard place to be a woman
Alabama consistently ranks as one of the hardest places to be a women in the United States. In 2015, it tied with Mississippi as the overall worst state for women in the country, according to The Status of Women in the States, which examined political participation, employment and earnings, work and family, poverty and opportunity, reproductive rights and health and well-being.
Alabama has the worst levels of diabetes and mental health among women in the country. Over 31% of employed women work in low-wage jobs.
Polls would suggest many Alabama voters are tolerant of Moore’s sexual predation—or that they believe his accusers are lying. Moore continues to be tied with his Democratic opponent, Doug Jones; many polls put him way ahead of Jones. Alabama’s female Republican governor, Kay Ivey, has said she believes Moore’s accusers but still supports Moore and will vote for him.
“Somehow Roy Moore’s persona of a man who wants to keep women in their ‘proper place’ is not that far off from how things actually are here,” says Stacie Propst, the Executive Director of the Alabama chapter of Emerge, a national organization that seeks to get Democratic women elected. The state’s chapter is brand new; the first training, a 70-hour commitment, will begin in January.
Nationwide, Emerge America has reported an 87% increase in applications to its training programs. Emily’s List, an organization dedicated to helping elect pro-choice Democratic women, said more than 22,000 women have contacted the organization to say they want to run—up from 920 during the 2015-2016 cycle.
A number of studies published over decades show that electing women to positions of power greatly benefits women and families.
In Alabama, Propst says Emerge will count on women candidates at every level of government to run in 2018—from Congress to the statehouse to city council members and the board of education.
“We’ve got every level. We’re gonna have a wave of women,” Propst says.
In Alabama’s District 2, two progressive Democratic women have already announced their candidacy for U.S. Congress.
Tabitha Isner is a Business Analyst for a software company, an ordained minister and a foster mom. Audri Scott Williams, a grandmother of 15, is a lifelong activist who grew up in the segregated south during the civil rights movement.
“We both agreed this is not a problem, it’s a good thing we’re both running,” Isner says. “How great that there are two of us out there organizing the base?”
Williams agrees: “I don’t think I’m running against her,” she says. “We’re giving the electorate the chance to make a choice. If she were to win I would be as supportive of her all the way through. I think that’s the type of politics that’s important. We’ve got a country we’ve got to bring back.”
Alabama is plagued by low voter turnout and participation.
In the August primary for Alabama's U.S. Senator, just 17.62 percent of the electorate turned out, according to the Alabama Secretary of State's office.
Propst says perhaps her biggest challenge is general apathy among Alabamians to get involved. “I hear all the time ‘nothing’s gonna change,’” she says. “People feel hopeless.”
Stewart and her wife spent a decade outside of Alabama—in Texas and Florida—working. A few years ago, when they got the opportunity to move back to Alabama, she had a realization.
“I thought if we go back home I’m not just gonna sit around and gripe about the way things are,” she says. “I’m gonna change jobs, get out of Corporate America and plug in on the local level.”
After Trump won the election, she decided to run for office.
“Everyone’s giving me a 60-40 shot, me being the 40,” she says. “But I take that as 50-50, which means I’m winning. Because every time I have a 50% chance I usually can take it out.”
Isner, too, says a number of people have told her she can’t win her race.
“But even if I don’t win, even if this doesn’t happen my first try, I’m paving the way, either for myself or for other women,” she says. “I have lots of women volunteering for me, those women are learning how to work a campaign. They will be great resources. The more we have structures in place, the more it feels possible.”
Ana Valeriano, who works as the lead organizer at the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama, HICA, says she’s been inspired by the energy around women getting involved in local politics.
Latinos make up some 4% of Alabama’s population, but there are no Latinos in elected office in the state.
“I’m thinking about it,” she says. “Give me a few years.”
Williams says Alabama may not be as quick as other states to elect a slate of diverse, progressive women. But she feels something is changing.
“We’re at the beginning of a new day,” she says. “Alabama is ready for new leadership.”