The two women vying to be our next senator open up about themselves, their backgrounds, and their thoughts on the future for women in West Virginia.
“What’s it like being both a woman and a politician?” They’ve both gotten this question dozens, maybe hundreds of times over the course of their careers, because they’re both powerful women in politics—and now they’re both trying to be West Virginia’s first female senator. Their answers vary depending on the mood and the occasion, but generally they’re not all that interested in talking about their status as women in power. “I’ve never not been a woman, I don’t know what it’s like,” says Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito. “I’ve just never thought it was a big deal,” says Secretary of State Natalie Tennant. “I try not to let being a woman define me.” They’re more interested in talking about how they’re going to help the state.
We’re not here to talk about these women’s campaigns, or even their politics. But we are here to talk about the fact that pretty soon one of them will be West Virginia’s newest senator. She’ll be the first woman ever elected to the Senate by West Virginians, and she’ll join a short list of women senators in Congress. There are more women Senators serving in Congress now than ever before—but there are still only 20 of them.
Leslie Tower is an associate professor at West Virginia University and co-authored a book on the challenges and opportunities facing women in public service. She tidily summed up the argument for diversity in politics. “We really need women to be throughout our society, not just at the lower rungs of employment, or in the home. We need women in decision-making positions,” she says.
“Individuals of a single sex have a limited ability to consider or solve the problems of a diverse citizenry. What makes us who we are is in part our experiences, and men and women tend to have different experiences. To be able to serve a whole population we need all of those perspectives as part of the discussion.” So let’s talk about experiences.
“That’s never part of the equation for me.”
Natalie Tennant likes to tell a story from her childhood growing up on a farm in Marion County as the sixth of seven children. She’s 9 years old, a tomboy who spends more time romping around the farm with her brothers than she does with her only sister, Catherine, 7 years her senior. “The rule was that the boys got a cow when they were 10 and the girls got one when they were 12,” Tennant says. “So I’m 9, it’s the summer before I turn 10, and we’re all getting rested after putting hay up into the barn, and I’m like, ‘Hey dad, I’m going to be 10 in December, does that mean I get a cow?’ And my brother Steve says, ‘Cathy didn’t get one until she was 12.’ And I shoot back, ‘Yeah, but she’s a girl.’”
It’s easy to see why Tennant likes this anecdote: It touches on her rural West Virginia roots, which contribute to her status as a West Virginia girl, through and through. It gets an honest-to-goodness laugh out of people, shows off her spunkiness, and highlights her tenacity. And it underscores the fact that, while we may think of Tennant as a woman who does things men usually do, that’s not how she thinks of herself.
The idea is this: She didn’t want a cow when she was 10 to prove that 10-year-old girls can have cows—she just didn’t want to wait two more years. “I don’t see obstacles. That’s never part of the equation for me,” she says. “If it’s something worthwhile I don’t let obstacles stand in the way.” Tennant didn’t get that cow when she turned 10, but she did go on to be the first woman to serve as the Mountaineer mascot at WVU, then the second woman to serve as West Virginia’s Secretary of State. It’s just a short step from there to first female senator.
“What’s wrong with your hair?”
It’s late June, and Tennant is at a campaign event about “women’s economic issues” at a private residence in Bridgeport. She mingles with the women for a while, then sits down in the living room to talk about health care, jobs, and education, making jokes occasionally and asking often for comments. “It’s about all of us working together,” she says. “We’re talking about women and how when women are part of the equation and part of the decision-making, we can have all kinds of forward thinking.” In between questions she coos at the infant a new mother had brought along.
Tennant has been in the public eye since she was 22 and became the first female mountaineer mascot at WVU, triggering a statewide controversy—she became a household name, and the school newspaper was flooded with letters. “This is back in the day when we didn’t have the Internet, so people wrote letters to the editor and they signed their names to them,” she says. “It’s not like this anonymous stuff now, so you knew it was true disdain for me—they took the time to write because they didn’t like me and they only didn’t like me because I was a woman.” After graduation she worked as a television reporter for 20 years, first in Clarksburg, later in Charleston, and then started a media company with her husband, Erik Wells, who is now a state senator. “I took some criticism when I was on TV, too, because I probably wasn’t the most well put together,” Tennant says. “I’m not very good at fashion, I’m not very good at hair, so there would be people writing in things like, ‘What’s wrong with your hair?’”
Tennant doesn’t consider any of her tribulations to be especially related to her gender. Asked if she thinks she has to present herself as a politician differently as a woman than her husband does as a man, she seems genuinely puzzled by the question. They don’t always agree on all the issues, she says, that’s for sure. But she’s not sure it has much to do with him being a man and her being a woman. “For me it’s just about using everything about who I am, the experiences that I’ve had in life,” she says. “I think he does that, too.” She acknowledges that some of those things are uniquely female—standing up to her dad was a character-building experience, as was reading all that hate mail she’d never have received if she were a man—but she doesn’t seem to think her experiences are more important or difficult than her husband’s, or any man’s for that matter.
“Come on girls, we’ve got to get busy.”
Shelley Moore Capito enjoys speaking to elementary schools. It gives her a chance to talk directly to the next generation of young, political, enterprising women. Over the years she’s developed kind of a bit she uses to inspire them. “I go off on a little girl thing,” she says. “I have to say to the boys, ‘I’m sorry guys, this isn’t for you,’ and they laugh, and then I say, ‘Come on girls, we’ve got to get busy.’ Because we need more women in the leadership in the political sphere, and in general. And I hope maybe some day one of them will say, ‘I remember that lady. I wanted to be like that lady.’”
Capito likes to frame discussion on women in politics around the next generation of those women because, frankly, she’s a little worn out on talking about the fact that she’s a woman herself. When she was elected to Congress in 2000 she became only the second woman to represent West Virginia in the House of Representatives, when there were only 59 women serving, and now she’s running to be the first to woman to represent West Virginia in the Senate. That’s a lot of trailblazing, but trailblazing isn’t something Capito cares about. “I really kind of try to be blind to that,” she says. “With all the issues I have to address, it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman, it touches everybody.” Though that’s not to say she doesn’t crave more diversity in Washington. “This would probably get me in trouble with the men, too—but women make a lot of decisions with their heart. And I think we need more of that in Congress,” she says.
“It’s a lot harder than it looks.”
The desk in Capito’s Charleston office is lined with knickknacks and awards, the walls with photos. When she starts to speak about her entrance into politics, she points to one of them. “There we are, West Virginia’s first family,” she says. She’s talking about a portrait of herself with her two siblings, mother, and father, Arch Moore, when he was the governor of West Virginia, from 1969 to 1977. Capito grew up in a political family, to put it mildly—she’s the daughter of a two-term Congressman and a three-term governor and has early memories of campaigning for her father. “I can remember decorating one of those little red wagons with my dad’s bumper stickers and putting my sister in there—we had her all dressed up like a princess or something. And we dragged her around the neighborhood,” she says. When she entered politics she started using her maiden name in addition to her married one—better to be open about it, she thought, whether the family legacy helps or hurts her.
After college Capito worked for a few years as a career counselor but then decided to stay home and take care of her three kids. She did that for more than a decade until, in 1996, she ran for the state House of Delegates. Her kids were in public school and she didn’t like what she saw there; she figured she should try to fix it. “One thing I learned right away, from the minute I started, is that it’s a lot harder than it looks,” she says. “Observing my dad doing it I thought, ‘Oh, he makes it look so easy.’ It’s not so easy.”
She insists she doesn’t present herself differently in politics or in public life because she’s a woman—she doesn’t try to act tougher to overcompensate for gender stereotypes, for example. And she doesn’t brush off those years working at home as inconsequential—they’re as much a part of her as her voting record and the elections she’s won. “I’m a wife, I’m a daughter, I’m a mother, I’m now a grandmother. And I find that women, we have so many things on our plate, whether it’s having to take care of our parents, worrying about our children and grandchildren, putting a load of laundry in, helping with the homework. All the things we do all day I think really help us understand West Virginia families from all the different perspectives, whether it’s opportunity in the workforce or the price of bread.” Capito wants those little girls she talks to in elementary schools to embrace all their roles as West Virginians and to try to picture themselves in new ones, too. “I really think more women’s voices are going to be much needed in the future,” she says. “Women’s lives have changed over the years and we need to have that reflection in Congress.”
Written by Shay Maunz