“That girl” — Tennessee women share stories of making it in politics

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(Clockwork from top left) Rep. Barbara Cooper, Sen. Becky Duncan Massey, Rep. London Lamar, Rep. Gloria Johnson.

This article was written by Kendyl Kearly of Tennessee Lookout, part of a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.

Everyone called Crystal Ottinger “that girl” during her election. Some people asked her husband how he felt about her running before they could vote for her. And after the 34-year-old became Cocke County mayor, residents would find her father and “tell on” her if they didn’t like her work. “I don’t think men have that same issue,” Ottinger said. 

Rutgers’ Center for American Women and Politics ranked Tennessee 47 among state legislatures for the proportion of women. But women certainly are taking up space in government—Tennessee has a female U.S. senator, a U.S. congresswoman, eight state senators and 14 state legislators.

“You have women leading cities in executive positions all over the state,” Rep. London Lamar (D-Memphis) said. “People are electing women. They just have to step up to the plate.” But campaigns and government jobs can be fraught with sexism in Tennessee. “Women that are more outspoken sometimes are not seen as nice and are probably given more grief,” Sen. Becky Duncan Massey (R-Knoxville) said. “They don’t quite do that with some male elected folks.” 

How can a state senator, legislator or county executive avoid being outspoken? The line between “assertive” and “aggressive” is thin, especially in areas that aren’t as familiar or comfortable with women leading. 

“It’s harder to get women to run,” Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville) said, “especially women who see stuff they do to me.” 

Making Witches

Johnson awoke on the concrete floor of a makeshift homeless shelter. On a particularly frigid night when shelters were full, she participated in an event to house more people. At 7 a.m., a colleague arrived with pancake supplies and snapped a photo of Johnson in her crumpled hoodie. 

She knew exactly which photo of her the Republicans would use in their campaign messaging. 

“They might gray out a man’s photo, but I’ve never seen them digging for the worst photo they’ve ever seen,” Johnson said. “They’ve made me a witch. It’s very misogynistic. I don’t see anyone else attacked with mail like I am.” 

Her constituents have received mailers with her likeness made into a clown, a witch, a blood-splattered criminal, and a doctor giving out poison pills. The pharmaceutical bottle featured a skull with an afro. 

“I was not used to negative ads and things like that,” Ottinger said. “After high school, you don’t really have people call you names anymore.”

Giles County Executive Melissa Greene’s race was much tamer. “The campaign style is going to be much different [in Giles County] from Davidson or somewhere metro,” she said. “It’s more one-on-one to get as many handshakes and eye-to-eye contact as possible. It doesn’t get as nasty.” 

Freda Player-Peters is executive director and a co-founder of Emerge Tennessee, an organization that trains women for campaigns. She said that the level of nastiness usually depends on how competitive the race is. In those elections, outside influences such as political action committees and party money can heat up the dialogue. When asked if sexism is fading from Tennessee campaigns, Player-Peters replied, “Honestly, no, we’re not moving past it.” 

Bearing the Media

But opponents aren’t the only ones engaging in “nastiness.” Media coverage provides another set of judgements. “When it’s a school board race or city council race, the negativity is more gossip, word of mouth, Facebook,” Player-Peters said. “As you go to statehouse, mayor, governor, U.S. Senate races, it’s more media-driven—talk shows, ads. It’s just that the vehicle is different.” 

Ottinger’s local newspaper ran a faith-based editorial about how women shouldn’t be in office. In The Knoxville Focus, pundit Steve Hunley wrote, “…that would cause Gloria Johnson’s Farrah Fawcett-hairdo to collapse.” In response to the gibes, her team Photoshopped Johnson’s head onto Fawcett’s body for social media. 

Johnson said that in some ways, she has it easier because she’s single without children. She doesn’t have to worry that children would see the mailers about her (though former students have been upset by them). But she said some pundits seem concerned with anyone who isn’t in a traditional marriage with children. 

Johnson said: “They tried to insinuate on multiple occasions that there’s something wrong with that or insinuating that I might be gay. … Again, I just bore it.” 

Massey jokes that there’s something in the water in her district because she always runs against women. “The first forum I did when I was running, there was a weekly, pretty liberal newspaper,” she said. “They did a report on the forum, and about all they talked about was what the three of us had on. I thought they were going to be more feminist.” 

She said one of the biggest inconsistencies for women in politics is the dress code. Men can take off their suit jacket, roll up the sleeves, and be ready for a casual setting. “It doesn’t work for women,” Massey said. “You’re more casual going door-knocking and then have to go to a dinner. I changed clothes in gas station bathrooms on the campaign.” 

As the youngest female legislator in Tennessee, Lamar said that women are judged more harshly for their appearances. “I know I am personally an aggressive woman,” she said. “I ensure my look is very feminine.” She pointed out that her professional clothes, hair, makeup, and nails get expensive, and that’s a budget that men just don’t have to the same degree.

Starting Behind the Line

Once women make it to Tennessee’s halls of power, the pressure only continues, especially if they are the first woman to hold the office. “I put a lot of pressure on myself with every decision I made, thinking if I didn’t do well in this, I would hinder women running in the future,” Ottinger said. 

Some, such as Greene, were pleased with how welcoming and helpful their male colleagues were. Conversely, Johnson was the only person denied a standard office—after being the only legislator who didn’t vote for Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) for speaker. He gave her a conference room without space for an assistant, a full desk setup, or visitors to socially distance during COVID-19. An empty legislator office was right across the hall. 

She explained to the speaker that she wouldn’t be able to meet with constituents or invite people to work on bills there. “‘Well Gloria, what is it about you that needs a larger office?’ He must have said that 10 times,” she recalled. “I guarantee you they would not have done this to any men. It’s so petty that a woman who uses her voice to speak out in opposition to what [leadership has] to say gets bullied. There’s so much gaslighting.” 

When Ottinger brought an issue to the commission, she felt she needed to have her opinion, the attorney general’s opinion, and the commissioner’s opinion prepared. “When we had other mayors, they seemed to take what those mayors said without so much proof that what they were saying was valid,” she said. 

“Men are just men.” Rep. Barbara Cooper (D-Memphis) said. “I’ll just say that. Men see themselves as head of the house. They think for the most part, men should be in charge.” She, Johnson, and Lamar said there isn’t much of a women’s caucus in the legislature, though they do come together with their Republican counterparts on family issues. Massey started an annual dinner for female senators and commissioners. 

I have four strikes against me every time I walk through that door: Black, woman, Democrat, young. I step up to the plate regardless of having to start behind the line.

– Rep. London Lamar, D-Memphis, on the challenges of being a woman in the state legislature

Greene meets with other female mayors a couple of times per year at the mayors’ meetings. She became close with Bonnie Lewis, metro executive of Moore County, and they frequently bounce ideas off each other. “When you are in a room with 90 other men, you do congregate and ask them their stories,” Greene said. 

Ottinger agreed: “We want to obviously check on each other any time we see one another. We ask about everybody’s well-being and things like that. I don’t do that for every male mayor. We let them know that they can reach out.” 

When Cooper came up in Tennessee politics in the 1990s, there were few Black candidates running beside her, especially Black women. “There was no one out there to guide me,” she said. “Maybe if I had talked to someone, I wouldn’t have had to lose four times before getting elected.” 

Lamar identifies with the feeling of having to work twice as hard to be considered half as good. “I have four strikes against me every time I walk through that door: Black, woman, Democrat, young,” she said. “I step up to the plate regardless of having to start behind the line. I’m still going to make sure I finish first.”

She’s sometimes expected to champion every women’s or Black issue. She said: “People asked me, ‘Are you only going to talk about women, or are you going to talk about everything? Are you going to talk about finance, or are you going to talk about abortion?” 

Women’s issues can be difficult to navigate for female legislators on either side of the aisle. Massey says her district contains just as many men as it does women, but she represents them all equally (though she said she was better equipped than the men to present her mammogram bill a few years ago). 

During a session on the “heartbeat” abortion bill in 2019, Johnson raised her hand for nearly 45 minutes in order to propose an amendment that would exempt survivors of rape or incest. The House Speaker did not call on her. 

Fixing Some Things

Several of these elected officials said that they didn’t want to be seen as the female candidate. They wanted to be elected and given equal treatment for being the best and most qualified person for the job. 

Lewis preferred not to be interviewed but wrote in an email, “When I took office in 2018, I was one of four county mayors in TN, out of 95 counties. I didn’t run to prove anything to anybody. I love Lynchburg and I just wanted to help fix some things. I have never wanted any special treatment for being a girl.” 

A study of Congress in the American Journal of Political Science found that women sponsor and co-sponsor significantly more bills than men do and secure roughly 9%  more spending from federal discretionary programs for their districts. “Any woman reading this article needs to know: Don’t let being a woman stop you. If not you, then who?” Lamar said. 

Even though her stories are some of the most daunting, Johnson said she has no regrets in pursuing politics. “I will never be discouraged because someone was mean to me or they don’t treat me fair,” she said. “That is more reason for me to fight and lift the voices of people in my district.”

Tennessee Lookout is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Tennessee Lookout maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Holly McCall for questions: info@tennesseelookout.com. Follow Tennessee Lookout on Facebook and Twitter.

Published on November 3, 2021.