Wichita Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau ran for public office in response to a death-bed plea from her mother, who marched for equality and justice with the Rev. Martin Luther King.
Her introduction to door-to-door campaigning revealed obstacles faced by women in a political system affording men a solid majority of seats in the Kansas Legislature. She recalled meeting an elderly woman who glanced at a campaign brochure featuring a photograph of Faust-Goudeau and her two children.
"She said: ‘You don’t have a husband? Well, you’re not going to do well.' " Faust-Goudeau said during the Capitol Insider podcast. "Part of that made me want to prove to her that, you know, I can do this. I won my election and I eventually went back to her home and said, ‘I won.' She gave me a big hug."
Faust-Goudeau, the first African-American woman elected to the Kansas Senate, is among 14 women in the 40-member chamber. Across the rotunda, there are 31 women in the 125-person House. Women account for 27.3 percent of the Legislature's members, below the national average of 28.7 percent. Representation of women in Topeka falls well below the U.S. Census Bureau's estimate that women are 50.2 percent of the Kansas population.
The Nevada statehouse began the 2019 session with a majority of female lawmakers in both chambers. In Colorado, women hold a majority in the state's lower house. Women make up about 15 percent of state lawmakers in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and West Virginia.
The struggle in capital cities feature basic issues of gender bias among voters, insufficient role models for women and lack of access to campaign financing.
Gov. Laura Kelly, who served 14 years in the Kansas Senate before elected governor in November, said adding women in the Legislature would be difficult. There is reason to be optimistic, she said, with a surge in women governors.
"We need that balance. I think women do bring a perspective to that process," Kelly said. "I will work with young women to provide guidance and leadership, hope and persuasion."
Shawnee Rep. Susan Ruiz, elected in 2018, and Wichita Rep. Ponka-We Victors, who has served in the House since 2011, said on the podcast they experienced electoral complexities setting women apart from men in legislative campaigns. Ruiz is a gay Hispanic woman in the House, while Victors is the chamber's only Native American.
Ruiz and Victors dealt with standard gender stereotypes, including a sense women couldn't balance their personal and professional lives. They also encountered attitudes of some voters about women of color running for office.
"It's just the color of my skin," Ruiz said. "Sometimes people would want to know right away, 'What are you?' I know what that means. It was just learning what I need to do for that."
"I feel I had to prove myself twice as much being a woman, a young woman and a minority woman," Victors said.
Faust-Goudeau, who earned a House seat in 2003 and was elected to the Senate in 2009, put it this way: "Me as a black woman, I say I show up with three strikes already. As a woman, black and a Democrat."
In the Capitol, Faust-Goudeau said women legislators were viewed differently from male lawmakers who preferred to perpetuate a good-old-boy system. She said she observed instances in which Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican and the first woman to hold the position, didn't receive the type of respect granted her male predecessors.
Faust-Goudeau said her deep voice had become an issue because if she turned up the volume in a manner comparable to a male colleague, she would be accused of being the "angry black woman in the Capitol."
There are small victories unnoticed by others, Faust-Goudeau said. One example was a state senator who until three years ago would greet her with, "Good morning, kiddo."
"That made me angry inside," she said. "Finally, one day, I walked in and he said, 'Good morning, senator.' "
Ruiz, in her first session as a state representative, said she han't detected a bias against women serving on her House committees.
“They get respect," she said. "That’s been really refreshing to see that.”
In January, Victors convinced House members to include in the chamber's organizational rules a passage allowing women to breastfeed during floor debates and while voting. In the past, women had to sit at the back of the House chamber or go to a restroom with their babies.
It is the type of overdue reform, a slight turning of the wheel, that could encourage more young women to run for the Legislature, she said.
“I thought it was a no-brainer," she said. "Baby’s got to eat, and momma has to vote."