LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Bill Clinton’s native Arkansas is not a kind place for women.
That’s according to an iVillage ranking of the 50 states that are best and worst for women. Arkansas placed 48th in the survey with its bordering states, Oklahoma and Mississippi, receiving 49th and 50th respectively.
The survey examines women’s access to reproductive rights, birth control and health care. It also looks at access to affordable childcare, female representation in government, economic success and educational attainment.
I didn’t need a review to tell me my state isn’t always pro-woman. Let’s take politics, for instance.
Arkansas was home to the country’s first elected female senator, Hattie Caraway, in 1932. But even Caraway wasn’t a beacon for women’s rights. She avoided the suffrage movement and once said, “After equal suffrage I just added voting to cooking and sewing and other household duties.”
Arkansas did not elect another woman to Washington until 1992 when Blanche Lincoln won a congressional seat the same year Clinton won the White House. She became the state’s second female senator in 1998 but lost re-election in 2010.
At least, Arkansas is ahead of Mississippi on this front. That state has never elected a woman to Congress. But neither Arkansas nor Mississippi has ever elected a female governor.
In 2002, when Arkansas treasurer Jimmie Lou Fisher ran for office, people often told me as I covered that race that the state wasn’t ready for a female governor. Shocking, to the say the least, in the 21st century.
Currently, only one woman, Republican Beth Anne Rankin, is running for Congress in Arkansas although women make up 54 percent of voters.
Kathy Webb, a Democratic state legislator who has long been involved in state and national politics, tells me, “Most often, when there is an election, male candidates are thought of first, and too often women candidates are an afterthought. We need to recruit women at the grassroots level and support them and help develop their political skills.”
She also says that those women who are in the statehouse should “pursue leadership roles in non-traditional areas to break down gender barriers.”
Webb did. She is the first female co-chair of the Joint Budget Committee and, agrees with the iVillage assessment of Arkansas. She said it mirrors a study that she is currently undertaking with the same categories to present to the legislature.
“We need more college graduates, more women in professional and executive jobs, more women-owned businesses and more women with health insurance,” says Webb, who works as the executive director of the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance.
Women also only make an average of about $14 an hour in Arkansas, or $29,148 annually.
As iVillage pointed out, the good news in Arkansas is that if a health insurance plan pays for prescriptions, it must cover contraceptives. But abortions are hard to obtain. Only three percent of Arkansas counties have clinics that offer the procedure.
Arkansas (or Mississippi and Oklahoma, for that matter) has never ratified the Equal Rights Amendment, which was passed out of Congress in 1972. Thirty-five of the necessary 38 states have ratified the act in order for it to become an amendment to the constitution.
Over the last 10 years, resolutions that would have endorsed the ERA’s ratification in Arkansas have failed three times in the legislature. In 2011, an ERA resolution wasn’t even submitted. Even if it had been, legislators told reporters it would have been unlikely to pass.
Arkansas women aren’t giving up their fight, however long it may be.
On April 28, the Unite Against the War on Women march occurs on the state's capitol steps. The march is part of a national movement to stop harmful legislative proposals, government regulations and political rhetoric aimed at women. A national “We Are Woman” march will be held in Washington in September.
Maybe women should just be happy that last week Little Rock’s municipal airport commission honored Hillary Clinton along with her husband by re-naming the city’s airport for them. It was the first time a former first lady’s name had been attached to an airport.
That’s great. But Arkansas needs to do more than pay lip service to its women if it is to shake its ranking as cellar dweller.
Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist and author of “Sex in the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt.” Follow her on Twitter at @SuziParker