Women in Politics: panel discussion motivates next generation of engaged citizens

Women in Politics: panel discussion motivates next generation of engaged citizens

Story, photos and video developed by University Communications


A week after the United States recognized the 102nd anniversary of women gaining the right to vote, Dr. Victoria Gordon, the Paul D. Coverdell visiting scholar, impaneled a group of current and former, female elected officials to rally engagement in the political process and reflect upon the state of equality within U.S. civil society.

The Women in Politics panel included Milledgeville Mayor Mary Parham-Copelan, Georgia College & State University (GCSU) President Cathy Cox and Baldwin County Solicitor General Skye Gess. Panelists shared their experiences campaigning for and serving in elected office, and stressed the importance of all citizens—regardless of sex, age, race, gender, ability and political leaning—actively participating in the democratic process.

Panel moderator, Gordon, scheduled the conversation to coincide with Women’s Equality Day, the annual commemoration of the 1920 adoption of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibits the states and the federal government from denying the right to vote on the basis of sex.

Over a century after women gained access to the ballot, panelists described a political environment in which equality is obtainable, but not yet the reality.

“We no longer have to take the back seat as women,” said Parham-Copelan. “We are able to come to the forefront now and be whoever you want to be, at whatever position you desire.”

We are able to come to the forefront now and be whoever you want to be, at whatever position you desire.
– Mary Parham-Copelan

Panelists talked about the growing infrastructure for recruiting female candidates, connecting them to the funding necessary to run a campaign and supporting them once they’ve taken office.

And all panelists agreed those networks of support will benefit current and future generations of women seeking to fulfill their leadership potential. 

Each panelist credited family members, educators, mentors, friends, faith leaders and volunteers who pushed them beyond self-imposed boundaries, diminished expectations and fear of the unknown to aspire to public service through elected office. And they urged everyone in attendance to be that support network for someone who considers running for office.

Women in Politics panelists Cathy Cox, Skye Gess and Mary Parham Copelan
Women in Politics panelists Cathy Cox, Skye Gess and Mary Parham Copelan

“We need to encourage one another—not put one another down,” Parham-Copelan said. “Encourage one another that they can do—'yes, you can do this, let's get behind you, and make sure you have everything that you need.’”

But despite an equal opportunity to participate, each panelist shared personal experiences about the barriers women face in running for political office.

Gess described her dismay at being told that her appearance would favor her in an election.

“I was caught very off guard,” she said. “I'm accomplished. I have a law degree. I've prosecuted murder and aggravated assault cases. I want to be recognized for my accomplishments and because I am the best person for the job.”

Gess said her experience speaks to the way our society judges female candidates in superficial ways.

“I lived in a fishbowl during that 2020 season,” she said.  “My hair had to be put in place, and I had to be in the right outfit, because it's something that people will judge [about] a woman who is running for an office that a man doesn't necessarily have to deal with.”

I want to be recognized for my accomplishments and because I am the best person for the job.
– Skye Gess

Cox, who served two terms in the Georgia House of Representatives and held statewide office as the first woman to be elected Georgia Secretary of State, said a reoccurring theme in her political career was being underestimated because she was a female candidate. She credits a small part of her early success to the fact that some people could not reconcile the idea that a woman would ever represent the rural, Southwest Georgia district that elected her to the state legislature in 1992.

Nevertheless, she persisted because she believes voters want to elect representatives who not only share their political beliefs, but who also know the struggles they’ve faced and the misperceptions they’ve overcome.

“It matters so much for people to see diverse people holding office, because they get used to seeing only one kind of person holding an office and they just get it in their mind that that’s the only one who can do that job,” Cox said. “So, if anything, I hope that I helped to open that door to an array of people to hold that, and lots of other, offices.”

We need your perspectives now, not 20, 30, 40 years from now.
– Cathy Cox
Underlying all things said during the Women in Politics panel was the importance of exercising the right to vote, establishing the practice of voting in every election, holding candidates accountable for the promises made on the campaign trail and being willing to engage directly in the political process to ensure every community benefits from the elected representation it deserves.

“We need your perspectives now, not 20, 30, 40 years from now,” Cox said. “So start being involved and know what is happening around you, and that can be a natural pathway to running for office and building a network of friends who will be happy to help you on your campaign.”

Panel moderator Gordon is the Paul D. Coverdell visiting scholar. Learn more about panels and activities Gordon will facilitate during her Coverdell semester on the Constitution Week website. Contact her at victoria.gordon@gcsu.edu.

Women in Politics Panel Discussion.