By Madelynn Coldiron
Not only have Kentucky women increased their numbers on school boards over the past three decades, they have done so as a greater percentage than women in other locally elected positions.
“I do think that attitudes have changed in that more women feel a responsibility to participate in their community and in local politics,” said Nancy Eskridge, a 22-year member of the Owensboro Independent school board, who also is the first woman to chair that panel.
“It’s easier for women to move ahead, so it’s easier for women to serve,” added Eskridge, who also serves on the board of the Kentucky Commission on Women.
The change is a natural extension of women’s role in the workforce, said Bracken County school board Vice Chairwoman Julie Riggs, who noted, “There are more females working nowadays.”
Eminence Independent board Chairwoman Brenda Chism, a 24-year veteran, said there aren’t many board members still serving who started out as rookies with her, and their successors aren’t necessarily of the same demographic. “I’ve noticed there are newer faces, younger faces, and more women,” she said.
The numbers don’t surprise Eleanor Jordan, executive director of the Kentucky Commission on Women.
“I think it’s interesting that women were getting elected to school boards before women had the right to vote,” she said. “One of them lived in Glasgow, Nettie Depp. She was elected several years to the school board in Glasgow before 1920. I’m assuming it’s because men saw that as a very nonthreatening position because it involved children. But Nettie Depp actually reformed the school system; she only served one term – no wonder – because she was such a powerhouse and had so many definite ideas about how children should be educated and what they needed. She also took the step to desegregate in the schoolroom.”
Marcy Goff, chairwoman of the Green County school board, said that kind of history is reflected in her own district.
“You know, Green County, even though we’re small and we’re kind of in southern Kentucky – which is not usually the most progressive of the state – we have always had, I guess, Title IX compliance before there was Title IX, because we’ve had female superintendents, back in the ’40s, even,” said Goff, whose uncle, Wendell Butler, was Kentucky’s superintendent of public instruction in the 1950s and ’60s.
School board service “may have been a great way for women to break into the world of politics and I think it still is,” Jordan said. “Children don’t vote and I’ve always felt that women recognize that children need a voice and I think we’re just in tune with that. I think we see our work on school boards as giving children a voice – that’s just my opinion.”
Other factors may play into the increased percentage of women on school boards. Women who are mothers generally are more involved in school, Riggs said.
“You go to meetings, school meetings, and who’s there? The mothers,” she said.
School councils also serve as springboards for women, Eskridge said. “I suspect many of the site-based council people went on to become board members. As I look around at our site-based councils, a lot of them are women,” she said.
Goff believes higher education also has given women more confidence to become involved in public office, “because they feel like they’re more qualified to do that.”
She said she’s also noticed many “kind of older” women at board member trainings, “and I feel like they have more time to devote after having raised children.”
Bracken County’s Riggs, like the others, said she’s never encountered any sexism in her service.
Brenda Jackson, a 26-year member of the Shelby County school board and former KSBA president, said, “We have had several combinations of (male/female) board members, but from that aspect, we’ve always gotten along. And even though we have different opinions … we didn’t align up all female, all male.”
Jackson said the background and interests of individual board members play a greater role than their gender. For example, she said, one board member she served with had children in Advanced Placement classes and was concerned about academics, while another who worked in the health-care field wanted the board to address school health issues.
Eskridge, who is a proponent of the arts, echoed that, saying constituents also pick up on those different interests among board members and contact them accordingly. She said she is the one who gets calls about funding for the arts, and also preschool, “because they see me as a real advocate for early childhood learning.”
Chism said the women’s point of view also plays a role. “I think we maybe see the whole package a little more, not just the financial, not just the policies and procedures, but the whole needs of everybody – the teachers, the parents, the students, plus the budget and that type of thing,” she said.
Jackson joked that the only time she recalls any kind of demographic differences coming up was when she served with three other members who farmed. “I thought I was going to have to buy a cow or get a tractor to fit in,” she said.
Kentucky school board members
Female elected representatives in Kentucky
Source: Kentucky Commission on Women and the Kentucky Association of Counties