Chance Ryan / Houma Courier
Women make up 11.8 percent of Louisiana's legislature, the smallest proportion in the country, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Only 13 out of the 105 members of the state House of Representatives are women, and four of 39 state senators are women. In 2005, there were seven women in the state Senate and 18 in the House. There are no women holding statewide office in Louisiana and Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu as the only woman representing the state in the U.S. Congress.
Experts cite the state's strong Republican leanings as one of the main reasons for the dearth of women compared to other states. The GOP has a majority in the state Senate and House.
“Women are, to the extent that they run for office, they're much more likely to run as Democrats than Republicans,” said Robert Hogan, LSU associate professor of political science.
According to Center for American Women and Politics, 63.7 percent of women in legislatures nationwide are Democrats, and 35.4 are Republicans. Today, 12 out of 17 women in Louisiana's Legislature are Democrats, and five are Republicans.
Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes, however, are seeing an improvement in female elected officials.
State Rep. Lenar Whitney, R-Houma, is the first woman sent to the Legislature by Terrebonne voters and the first Republican to represent House District 53.
Charlotte Randolph broke ground in the region as Lafourche's first parish president. She has been recognized for her leadership by New Orleans Magazine, which named her one of the area's 10 Top Female Achievers, citing her work with the group Parishes Against Coastal Erosion — a network of local leaders hoping to move the state forward in its effort to rebuild the rapidly eroding coast.
Arlanda Williams was elected in 2009 as the first Terrebonne Parish Council chairwoman, followed by Beryl Amedee this year.
Terrebonne Parish Council Clerk Theresa Robichaux is the first woman elected to a parishwide office and is also Terrebonne's first new clerk of court in nearly 50 years.
Being a woman in politics in Louisiana has its difficulties, Randolph said, but she sees progress being made.
“Politics is still a male-dominated world,” she said. “But the world is changing because people are recognizing that people are all equal.”
The general public is not voting based on race and gender so much anymore, she said. “People are just choosing the best candidate.”
Randolph said she ran for office because she wanted to improve Lafourche Parish's image.
“I was so upset that this great parish we live in was being viewed across the state as a problem,” she said. “So I stepped up and asked voters to vote for me because I can offer something more. And I surrounded myself with people that continue to help me do that.”
Williams said many women still follow an unfounded stigma that women should not be in politics.
“But we are starting to see an emergence in female leaders across the country,” she said. “It's normal now for women to represent various political offices, but we have to change the mind set of some women to say, ‘Yes, I can lead,' and get them to step up.”
Unfortunately in Louisiana, there aren't many organizations working to recruit and support women candidates, Williams said. But she hopes to change that by starting a women's political caucus in Terrebonne.
This year, the Louisiana Legislative Women's Caucus wrote an open letter to the women of Louisiana and launched a public service announcement urging them to get involved in the political process.
“I wanted all Louisiana women to know there is a group of dedicated, hardworking, qualified women, who are not sitting idle but are tirelessly working to help identify, develop and equip current and future women leaders,” state Rep. Karen St. Germain, D- Pierre Part, the head of the caucus, wrote in the letter.
Robichaux, a longtime Terrebonne courthouse employee, said she's happy to become the first woman elected parishwide.
When Bobby Boudreaux announced his retirement after 47 years, Robichaux knew her 27 years of experience working at the court would benefit the parish.
“I really never gave a thought to the fact that I was a woman,” she said. “And it obviously didn't matter to the voters.”
A common stigma as to why so few Louisiana women run is in part because they put the care of their families before their careers, experts say.
Robichaux said her two adult children encouraged her to run for office. But she would not have run while her children were young, she said.
“I can serve the parish better now that my children are grown because I can devote more time to the job,” she said.
Amedee, a mother of three, said she had all but finished raising her children by the time she decided to run for office.
“My feeling at the time was, ‘My children are only going to be young once, and that office will still exist when they're grown.' ”
Williams has two children. Her 16-year-old, Williams said, has learned a lot from her because she involves the teenager with the political process and much of the civic duties her job entails.
“She has learned a lot just from being around me and watching what I do,” Williams said.
Amedee said it doesn't matter so much nowadays whether a candidate is male or female.
That's because the public has grown more accepting of women holding positions that were traditionally held by men, she said.
“The reason for that is that many women who have held various offices have proven that they are capable,” she said.
Still, Amedee said, Louisiana is a Southern state where tradition outweighs other parts of the country.
Amedee ran for a seat on the Parish Council because she saw an opportunity to help and finds the job more enjoyable than she expected.
“I am delighted to help people sort through the government bureaucracy and find solutions to their problems.”