By Devin Hiett
A record number of women ran for office in the last midterm election cycle, and as more women than ever won elections, 2018 became dubbed the “Year of the Woman.”
Historic victories took place across the nation, including in Oklahoma, which is now ranked 43 out of 50 for the percentage of women in the state Legislature — the highest ranking Oklahoma has held in the past three decades.
Before the 2018 elections, Oklahoma was ranked 48th, with 12.8 percent of total seats in its Legislature held by women. Now the percentage has increased to 21.5 percent, and women hold 32 of the 149 total seats in the Legislature, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.
One of the women who helped Oklahoma get there was Rep. Merleyn Bell, a Democrat who represents District 45 in the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
Bell’s desire to run for office was fueled in part by her son, who started kindergarten this year.
A native Oklahoman, Bell worried that her son would not receive the same quality of public education that she did while growing up in Norman. By serving in the Legislature, Bell hoped she could improve public education in Oklahoma, which is ranked 43rd in the nation by U.S. News & World Report.
Bell considered the idea of running for office before her son was born, but was never confident she was qualified for the job. After graduating from OU in 2004 with a bachelor’s degree in geography, Bell started her own design company and worked as the art director at World Literature Today, an international literary magazine based on OU’s campus.
Bell did not consider this to be a typical path for someone who wanted to run for office, so she questioned her ability to launch a campaign and serve as an elected official.
“I’m not an attorney. I’m not a policy wonk. I haven’t studied government the way that I think other people must have, so I’m not the right person,” Bell said she told herself. “I sat in that place for a really long time.”
However, Bell’s perspective changed after Congresswoman Kendra Horn encouraged her to run.
Horn made history in 2018 when she defeated two-term incumbent Republican Steve Russell for Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District seat. Horn won the tightly contested race with 50.7 percent of the vote, making her Oklahoma’s first Democratic congresswoman.
Before running for Congress, Horn served as the executive director of Sally’s List, a nonprofit based in Oklahoma City that recruits and trains women to run for public office. During that time, she met Bell and encouraged her to run for the state Legislature.
“She really helped open that door for me,” Bell said. “I think I would have still been wishing I had run had it not been for other women saying ‘I can see you doing this, and I can show you a path forward.’”
Research has found that bridging the gender gap in American politics is largely dependent upon women having people in their lives who encourage them to run for office.
A study from American University found that women’s underrepresentation in politics can be traced to seven major factors. One of these is that “women are less likely than men to receive the suggestion to run for office – from anyone.” The study also found that women are much less likely than men to perceive themselves as qualified to run for office.
While campaigning, Bell said she had to put self-doubt aside and believe in herself more than ever.
“You know that running tape that we have in our minds, the things we tell ourselves?” Bell said.
“I really made the best tape ever for myself when I was running and said you are the most qualified person you could think of to do this, and I’ve got to start hammering that into myself.”
Bell, like many women working in traditionally male-dominated spaces, dealt with imposter syndrome while campaigning and after winning her election.
Harvard Business Review defines Imposter Syndrome as “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success.” A 2011 article from The Journal of Behavioral Science estimated that about 70 percent of people have experienced impostor syndrome at some point.
Bell said having female role models who have been through the same situation helped her overcome feelings of doubt and inadequacy.
“You still need those people there even after you succeed in getting elected,” Bell said. “It’s great to have women on your side saying ‘I get it, and you’re going to make it.’”
Lauren Schueler, director of NEW Leadership and civic engagement at the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center, runs a program that provides undergraduate women with a robust network of female mentors and allies working in public service positions.
NEW Leadership is an intensive five-day program that takes place on OU’s campus each year. Its goal is to educate and empower undergraduate women to be active participants in politics and public service.
Participants in the program have the opportunity to engage with more than 50 local women leaders from public life to help give them the understanding and tools to become professionals in areas like politics, law and public service.
Schueler, who has been director of the program for three years, believes that “you can’t be what you can’t see.” That is why it is crucial to expose young female leaders to other women in leadership positions, Schueler said.
“A big picture goal of the program is to fill that pipeline of women that have the potential, the expertise and the knowledge to run for office and to step into those leadership roles,” Schueler said.
Since NEW Leadership was brought to Oklahoma nearly two decades ago, about 600 women from over 40 higher education institutions have graduated from the program. Ten alumni have run for office and four are currently serving as elected officials, Schueler said.
Emilie Tindle, a 2019 NEW Leadership graduate, recently began her 2020 campaign for Oklahoma’s 11th state house district.
Tindle, a 24-year-old history student at Oklahoma State, was drawn to political life after participating in the Oklahoma House of Representatives High School Page Program as a teenager. Back then, Tindle imagined herself running for office later in life after pursuing other careers and raising a family.
However, her timeline changed.
Tindle lives in Collinsville, which is a part of the Tulsa metro area. Her state house district has not had a general election since 2006.
In 2018, no Democratic candidates ran in the primary for District 11 and the general election was cancelled once again. By then, Tindle was tired of watching candidates in her district run unopposed for over a decade.
“I felt like it was the right time for somebody to show up and nobody had,” Tindle said. “And I see the value in having a nontraditional student run for office, and I see the value of having a young woman run.”
Growing up, Tindle was homeschooled and raised in a community where most women stayed at home. The expectation was for Tindle to get married by 20, become a mother, and raise and homeschool her children.
Women who worked outside of the home were expected to enter service professions such as teaching or nursing — nothing executive, administrative or creative, Tindle said.
Although Tindle did not grow up surrounded by women in politics or similar professions, she loved to read and found inspiration from the heroic female characters in her favorite novels. The women Tindle read about could do anything, and they helped her realize that she could, too.
Running for office while pursuing a bachelor’s degree was never part of Tindle’s plan, but she knows that no time will ever be perfect.
“If you want it, build it into your life and don’t let other people’s expectations or rules keep you from doing what you feel called to do because that desire is true, it’s strong and it will guide you in that direction,” Tindle said. “It’s there for a reason. Not everybody feels it, but if you do, it’s really important to lean into it and go with it.”
One thing Schueler has noticed in her recent years running the NEW Leadership program is the shifting expectations around when women can and should run for office. When Schueler first became involved with the program in 2010 as a graduate assistant, many women felt compelled to get married and raise children before considering a career in politics.
Schueler believes that expectation is dying out.
“I think women are starting to push those barriers and saying why do I have to wait? Men don’t have to wait. I can do these things,” Schueler said.
In 2018, a record number of millennials — those born between 1981 and 1996 — were elected to Congress. There are now 26 millennials serving in the House, up from only five who were serving at the beginning of the current Congress in 2017, according to Pew Research Center.
The country saw another historic first in 2018 when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was elected to Congress at 29, making her the youngest Congresswoman in United States history. The median age for House members today is 58.
Tindle aspires to join the ranks of Ocasio-Cortez and other young women around the nation who are breaking political barriers. She hopes her unique candidacy will show constituents in District 11 that she would bring a fresh perspective to the job.
“I think people are excited somebody young is showing up because there’s this expectation that youth won’t show up and do the work, which is funny because we’re not old enough to have done the work yet anyway,” Tindle said. “But I think there’s a lot of excitement surrounding young candidates.”
Although Tindle is hopeful she will win the 2020 election, she recognizes that it’s a longshot.
Tindle is a young Democratic woman from a nontraditional background without a college degree. She is running against an older Republican male incumbent with multiple degrees in a seat that has not been held by a woman or a Democrat during Tindle’s lifetime.
But for Tindle, winning is not the only point of running.
“I think what might help women run more is the idea that you don’t have to win ― and you might not ― but it’s about the process of doing it, the process of being visible, of making space for the person who comes after you,” Tindle said. “It’s less about are you immediately going to create change and more about what’s the long-term change in the community that comes from a female presence in office.”
In many ways, Tindle’s candidacy resembles that of another young woman who ran for the Oklahoma House of Representatives in 2014.
Cyndi Munson, who was in her late 20s at the time, ran as a Democrat in District 85 against an older, Republican male incumbent in a traditionally Republican district in Oklahoma City.
Munson was a first-generation college student. She was an Asian-American woman running in a district that was more than 80 percent white and only 3.9 percent Asian. She knew her chances of winning against incumbent David Dank in the 2014 election were slim.
“Many times we are so afraid of failure we’ll keep ourselves from even trying, and I’ve certainly done that in my life,” Munson said. “But this time I felt like it was worth it.”
In the end, Munson lost the 2014 election by more than ten percent. Though she was disappointed, Munson immediately knew she wanted to run again.
After the seat she ran for in 2014 unexpectedly became vacant in 2015, Munson took the opportunity to run again only a year after her first attempt.
Running one campaign had given Munson the tools, confidence and experience to run another one, but she remembers feeling nervous about the prospect of losing again. She thought that losing once was acceptable, but losing twice? That made you a loser.
Ultimately, Munson decided to take the gamble.
She won the 2015 election and became the first Asian-American woman to serve in the Oklahoma Legislature. She was reelected in 2016 and 2018.
“In the end, I told myself, what do you really have to lose? You can try again and yeah, you could lose and learn more about yourself ― or you could win. And I won.”
Munson hopes her story will help the next generation of women realize that if you want something enough, you shouldn’t let the fear of failure stop you from trying. And trying again.
“You just might surprise yourself,” Munson said.