Jane Timken knows how to shatter a glass ceiling.
The U.S. Senate candidate became the first woman to run the Ohio Republican Party, rising to political prominence with the backing of former President Donald Trump. She spent years working behind the scenes for the state and Stark County GOP before launching her first election bid.
Now, she wants to be Ohio's first female senator, joining a groundswell of conservative women fighting for a seat at the table. But Timken's candidacy comes as Republicans struggle to diversify their representation in Congress — and as the Buckeye State lags behind others in electing women on both sides of the aisle.
"(Republicans have) still got a long way to go to catch up to Democratic women," said Barbara Palmer, executive director of the Center for Women and Politics of Ohio at Baldwin Wallace University. "Here in Ohio especially, there are so few Republican women who run to begin with that even if we see an increase, it’s hardly a blip on the screen."
Politics and the gender gap: The 2016 effect
The politics of gender has been front and center since 2016, when Trump defeated Hillary Clinton on the heels of revelations that he had boasted about grabbing women's genitals. His victory emboldened liberal women to speak out and prompted millions of people to hit the streets worldwide after his inauguration.
That frustration crescendoed in the first two years of Trump's presidency, leading to a record number of women elected to Congress and state legislatures in 2018. However, those gains were largely enjoyed by Democratic women — and conservatives took notice.
"A lot of Republican women who were in office or politically engaged were disturbed by the outcome of the 2018 election where Republican women actually lost ground," said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. "They weren’t happy with the narrative that the Republican Party is not a place for them."
Fast forward two years, and Republican women experienced their own landmark election — 19 newcomers, including four women of color, set a new record for their numbers in Congress. That success can be attributed in part to organizations like Maggie's List, which helps train female conservative candidates to run for the U.S. House and Senate.
It also signaled a desire to elevate a range of female voices in the post-#MeToo era.
“Women voters care about issues that affect all facets of life," said Maggie's List spokesperson Lauren Zelt. "They care about economic issues. They care about raising children in an increasingly unstable world."
Women in elected office in Ohio
Observers say Ohio is falling behind other states when it comes to increasing the number of women in state and federal offices — and the partisan gap is stark.
Only three women — all incumbents and Democrats — won congressional seats in 2020 even though 18 ran in primaries, according to data from the Center for Women and Politics of Ohio. By contrast, states like Michigan, Minnesota, Georgia and Washington have fewer congressional seats but more women holding those offices.
Ohioans haven't elected a Republican woman to the U.S. House since 2010.
Palmer said gerrymandered congressional districts have made it difficult for women, people of color and other underrepresented groups to break into office. She also contends state parties haven't prioritized recruiting women, despite lip service to the contrary, because they incorrectly believe men are more likely to win.
However, Palmer believes there could be greater opportunity for Ohio women who seek public office after the state draws new district maps later this year.
"It doesn’t take a whole lot for change to happen really quickly," she said. "What it takes is someone in a position of power to make recruiting women and electing women a priority."
At the state level, many of the first women elected to statewide offices were Republicans: Betty Montgomery as attorney general and then state auditor, Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Lt. Gov. Nancy Hollister, who served an 11-day interim term as Ohio’s only female governor. Jo Ann Davidson was the first and only female speaker of the Ohio House.
Currently, women comprise about one-third of the state Legislature, short of representing the 51% that make up Ohio's population. But just 21% of Republican seats in the House and Senate are held by women — who are exclusively white — compared to 51% on the Democratic side.
State Rep. Allison Russo, D-Upper Arlington, who is also a candidate in the 15th Congressional District race, said the GOP's focus on culture wars has alienated Ohio women, particularly those in the suburbs.
"We’re talking about issues that really speak to and impact families and other women — things like can you afford health care, can you have access to good paying jobs?" she said.
'An optics problem' for Republicans?
Republican candidates dispute the assertion that Democrats have a hold on the problems that concern women.
Ruth Edmonds, who is also running in the 15th District, said conservative women are incorrectly labeled as weak and subservient. She said women on the right have been pushed to run for office because they believe their families and country are being threatened by liberal policies and debate over issues like critical race theory that have no "end game."
Ruth Edmonds is running as a Republican in Ohio's 15th Congressional District.
"We’ve got some innate skills that I think our country needs today, so it’s important to have women and strong women — women who are women of faith, who have character and integrity, who are guided by principles and ethical — to be in leadership right now," Edmonds said.
Timken describes herself as someone who won't sit on the sidelines and said job losses, turmoil at the border and an increase in federal spending motivated her to run for Senate. She doesn't define her candidacy by gender, she said, and wants voters to judge her policies and leadership skills at the ballot box.
Still, Timken believes it's critical for women to engage in public service because they are prominent members of their families and communities.
"Quite frankly, women are in the trenches doing a lot of the work for the party and conservative candidates," she said.
Looking ahead to 2022, Walsh, of Rutgers, said conservative women who run for office face the same question as their male counterparts: How closely do I align myself with Trump? But female candidates must also grapple with a Republican Party that's been slow to embrace identity politics and promote elected officials who reflect the voting population, she said.
“I think the party has figured out they’ve got an optics problem," Walsh said.
The Columbus Dispatch