Karen Kedrowski and Kelly Winfrey

Iowa Press | Episode
Mar 29, 2024 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Karen Kedrowski, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University, and Kelly Winfrey, interim director of the Women's and Gender Studies Program and associate professor in the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University, discuss politics and policy as Women's History Month draws to a close.

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for The Gazette, and Amanda Rooker, chief political reporter for KCCI-TV in Des Moines.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa and Iowa Bankers Association.

[ Recorded: March 28, 2024 ]



As Women's History Month comes to a close, we sit down with two experts to talk about the intersection of women, politics and policy on this edition of Iowa Press.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation.

The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure.

Elite Casino Resorts is rooted in Iowa. Elite's 1,600 employees are our company's greatest asset. A family run business, Elite supports volunteerism, encourages promotions from within, and shares profits with our employees. Across Iowa, hundreds of neighborhood banks strive to serve their communities, provide jobs and help local businesses. Iowa Banks are proud to back the life you build. Learn more at iowabankers.com.


For decades, Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, March 29th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.


Henderson: For many years, Iowa was one of the last two states that had never elected a woman to Congress or as Governor. That changed in 2014 when republican Joni Ernst was elected to the U.S. Senate. In 2018, Iowans elected their first female Governor in republican Kim Reynolds and they sent two democrats to Congress for the first time who were female in Cindy Axne and Abby Finkenauer. Our guests today are following the progress of women in politics and are here to talk about women in politics in the past, the present and the future. They are Karen Kedrowski, she is Director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University. And Kelly Winfrey, she is the Director of Graduate Education and Associate Professor in the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication. She is also the interim Director of the Women’s and Gender Studies program at Iowa State University. Welcome to both of you.

Kedrowski: Thank you.

Winfrey: Thank you.

Henderson: Thanks for being here. Also joining our conversation are Amanda Rooker of KCCI in Des Moines and Erin Murphy of the Gazette in Cedar Rapids.

Murphy: Karen, Kay laid out the history of women in politics and elected office here in Iowa. Where do things stand now? How have we done as far as getting more women involved in politics?

Kedrowski: Oh, that's a great question. In terms of the state legislature, Iowa is making slow gains. However, in terms of comparisons to other states, Iowa is actually declining and we're ranked somewhere at around 35th. And it's about a third of the state legislature that is currently female, which is slightly under the national average. But we are not comparing very well to say Colorado, which has over 40%, or Nevada, which actually is at 60% women and it remains the first and only state legislature that has a majority of women in the state legislature. So, Iowa if it's going to catch up with the national average needs to sort of increase the pace of the percentage increase in women --

Murphy: How do we do that? What are the hurdles to --

Kedrowski: Well, first of all, first and most importantly is that we need to get women to run for office. And as women retire from office, they need to be replaced by other women so that there isn't that kind of retrenchment. But we just can't have any women running for office. They really need to be women who are well-suited and competitive in the districts that they are choosing to run in. So, we need more rural women, we need more republican women in office. And so, in that respect, Iowa is kind of falling behind. But in other ways, Iowa still remains something of a path breaker, like the entire democratic leadership, for example, in the House is comprised of women. So, there are some other pretty notable things that are happening. And we are doing quite well at the federal level right now.

Murphy: So, Kelly, once women do run for office, have we gotten to the point, does your research show whether voters, we're at a point where voters just see a candidate just like any other candidate? Or do women candidates still face hurdles in appealing to voters broadly?

Winfrey: I think it in large part depends on the level of office. I think we see less bias based on gender at local and state level office. But once we start looking at federal, and particularly the White House, we see a lot more gender bias in terms of leadership. Kind of what research has shown is that when women are running for legislative bodies, for example, those are bodies where people are making decisions together. Where there is more bias or discomfort among voters is when you have a woman that is going to be, as I think W. Bush said, the decider. So, whether that is a Governor or a President, there is still a lot of bias there. Political party is by far a much bigger determiner of who you're going to vote for than gender. But you've got to think about the primary process as well. The Democratic Party has had more success in getting women through the primary process and on a general election ballot than republicans have generally. However, that is in part because more women identify as democrats than republicans. So, there's a little bit more work and different work for republicans to do to increase women's representation there. But research that I've done that looked at all of the women that ran in 2020 for the democratic presidential nomination, we found a lot of bias in particularly how the candidates were covered by news media and then how that was discussed on social media. So, for example, Kamala Harris faced a variety of attacks that were both sexist and racist and just kind of disgusting at times on Twitter. And so, those biases still exist, especially as we think about that highest, hardest glass ceiling.

Rooker: We talked about female candidates, but looking at female voters what issues does your data show that female voters care about? Is it things that we typically think of like abortion access and child care? Or are there other issues that really motivate that demographic?

Winfrey: Like most voters, the economy is still kind of the biggest issue. But how that affects women voters might be different than how it affects men voters. And that is where I think women candidates can make connections with women voters. It's an area that I'm particularly interested in is how do women candidates connect with women voters? So, when I'm thinking about economic issues as a woman, women are more likely to also have caregiving duties. They need to pick up kids from school, sick kids, they have children so they need to be able to leave work, you'll also have more women who are in part-time jobs and things like that, need different health care access. So, those variables I think are important also for voters. But, of course, issues like reproductive rights have become a bigger issue now than they had been because of the Dobbs decision.

Rooker: Yeah, and let's talk a little bit more about that, Karen. Abortion access has been a major theme in recent elections. It's likely to be a top issue as we get closer to the general election. So, looking ahead to November, could reproductive rights help lead to a blue wave or not? And how do you see reproductive rights playing a role in campaign issues here in Iowa?

Kedrowski: Yeah, well first acknowledging that women do have a whole variety of opinions. So, when Kelly and I are making sort of generalizations, this is not intended to apply to everyone. But, having said that, I think that what we are really seeing is exactly how popular, or how much public support there really has been for a legalized abortion and that in every state, even those that are really quite conservative states where abortion has been a ballot issue, it has passed overwhelmingly. So, yes, I see that abortion will "be on the ballot" in two ways. One is if there is a popular referendum, which is planned in about five different states. But the other one is the degree to which candidates themselves make abortion and IVF access key parts of their candidacy. And we see that certainly at the presidential level where Vice President Harris especially is leading the administration's effort to defend reproductive rights. But we see it even as clearly as or even as low as in terms of state legislative races. There was just a special election in Alabama where a democrat managed to win in a republican district because she focused largely on IVF access.

Henderson: Kelly, we saw a bill in the Iowa legislature fail to advance in the Iowa Senate after it had passed the House over the IVF issue. And since 2018, Governor Reynolds has been proposing that access to birth control be easier and sort of over the counter, if you will. How does -- what is the difference between elected officials and their approach to this and the general electorate?

Winfrey: That's a good question. I think the general electorate when it comes time to vote they're looking at a whole host of issues. And that is where in states that have had a referendum or had a ballot issue on abortion, when it's just about that issue they're going to get, it usually stands. The problem is that when people are voting in an election for a candidate, if that is not a high-ranking issue for them or something that they feel immediately connected to, then that is just one of many issues. And so, they're probably still going to vote along partisan lines. But I think it's interesting, in Iowa, for example, polling has shown too that the majority of Iowans want some level of access to abortion. And certainly, the IVF question has raised alarms for a lot of folks because that is a different take on the issue that affects people differently that maybe didn't think they were affected by the overturn of Dobbs. So, it might engage some voters on that issue that weren't engaged before and I think that is potentially a strategy for democrats to talk about IVF as a way to win some new voters.

Henderson: There has been a group that has formed that has sort of spread across the country called Moms for Liberty. Karen, if you could talk about the development of that movement and its impact on policy and the choice of that name.

Kedrowski: Yeah, well, those are really great questions. And I think, first of all, is that it really does demonstrate the diversity of opinion among women. So, the Moms for Liberty group are part of the cultural conservative base to the Republican Party and they are very concerned with the kinds of materials that are in classrooms and school libraries and they are especially concerns about the presence of works that either include sex acts or talk about LGBTQ issues. And I think the choice of the name is really interesting because who can oppose liberty?

Winfrey: Or moms.

Kedrowski: Or moms, or liberty. But it also implies that they are pushing for sort of a freedom. But what they're really pursuing is a freedom from influences that they think are negative and that would infringe on their rights are parents to raise their children as they see fit. And that can be just a little bit confusing when you think that in a lot of cases, they're talking about book banning or removing materials from libraries, where libraries are supposed to be the community center for free exchange of ideas and a safe place to explore new ideas. So, there is a bit of a contradiction. But they would really see that parent's rights are the ones that should be at the forefront when it comes to making decisions about how to educate their children, especially on I think a lot of these kind of cultural issues, ones that have a lot of religious overtones.

Murphy: We wanted to ask you guys to help us work through some recent election results here in Iowa, looking back to the Iowa Caucuses. And Kelly, I'll start with you because I think maybe this gets at something you were talking about a little bit earlier. So, ultimately in Iowa it turned out to be a three-ticket race, as it often is. Donald Trump won, Ron DeSantis was second and Nikki Haley third, the most prominent woman in the race. Donald Trump in those caucus results, according to exit results, won 53% of women, Ron DeSantis 22%, Nikki Haley 20%. What does that tell us? I think a lot of people watching this might be surprised to learn that 53% of republican women voted for Donald Trump and only 20% for Nikki Haley. What does that tell us, Kelly?

Winfrey: Well, it tells you that issues matter and that partisanship matters. And I think particularly for Donald Trump there is a loyalty to him among his strong supporters that isn't going to waver based on the gender of another candidate. But I think it also shows that there are different perspectives on some of these issues because you have those women, only 50%, we have a former President basically running for re-election just with a break and you would expect to have more support than that from a former President. What it says is that there is a split in the Republican Party among women on how conservative they are on certain issues. And I think Nikki Haley in particular showed that there's some more moderate positions there that women are interested in. And, as Karen was saying, the kind of conservative view of womanhood and women's role in society -- Moms for Liberty is newish -- but the idea of republican motherhood that one of the jobs of women in our society is to raise children to serve the republic, mostly, raise young men to serve the republic and young women to support those men. And this is just kind of another iteration of that. And those women are still going to support maybe that traditional model and traditional gender roles that maybe you're hearing more from Trump or from DeSantis.

Kedrowski: If I can jump in there too, that 53% of support from women is actually lower than the overall support for Trump. So, we still see that there was a gender gap where fewer women comparatively to men supported the former President. But it's also consistent with what we saw in the general election in 2016 and in 2020 where President Trump won a majority of white women voters in both of those elections. And so, to the degree that the Democratic Party enjoyed its traditional advantage among women voters, it was largely due to the overwhelming support of women of color. So, when we sort of pull that apart by race, we find that, again, there is a significant base of the Republican Party among white women. And, of course, caucus goers are not the same as the general election voters. These are republican devotees, they came out on a bitterly cold night after a couple of major blizzards to indicate their support for their candidate. So, these are the true believers. And if they are loyal to the President, it's hard to think why they would be motivated for any reason to choose an alternative.

Rooker: Karen, Governor Kim Reynolds asked the Iowa legislature this year to eliminate gender balance on state boards and commissions. The legislature did that. The bill is on its way to the Governor's desk. What does your data show about how balanced Iowa's Boards and Commissions are right now in regards to gender?

Kedrowski: Well, the gender balance law that we have been following, and Kelly has been a part of this for many years, was the implication of, or the application of gender balance to local boards and commissions, so county and municipal boards. And what we have found over time is that the percentage, the total percentage of women serving on local boards and commissions has not changed very much. It's about a third. But they are better distributed across the boards. So, more boards are gender balanced, even as the total number of women serving has remained pretty much the same. So, this demonstrates that the gender balance law really did work and that it incentivized local governments to make the effort to find women to serve on boards that might have been overwhelmingly male and to find men who would serve on boards that were traditionally overwhelmingly female like health boards, libraries, cultural commissions, things like that. What I suspect will happen without the gender balance law is that there will be some local administrators who continue to make an effort to make sure that their boards have a diversity of voices on them. But there will not be that legal mandate, even if it didn't have any teeth to it, there was no punishment. And I suspect though that what we will see is retrenchment where there will be fewer boards that are gender balanced and potentially fewer women in leadership positions on those boards. Kelly, do you want to add anything since you literally have been up to your elbows in the data on this?

Winfrey: And I've been out of it for a couple of years just watching you do it. But I note that in the first few years after the law went into effect for local and county boards, there was an uptick. It wasn't huge, but there were gains. And then in the past several years we've just kind of see the redistribution. But I think that's still very significant, partially because some of those boards and commissions are better springboards to elected office. So, boards that make more kind of meaningful decisions for their community, more noticeable decisions, like planning and zoning, for example, are better springboards and help to serve the pipeline of women candidates for elected office down the road. So, that is one of the reasons that having that representation is really important.

Henderson: We have about five minutes left for our conversation. In the last century, the state girl’s basketball tournament drew more people than the boy’s tournament. But now nationally, women's sports are kind of having a moment. Was Title IX a success, is my first part of this question? And what, if any, impact has it had on women stepping forward to enter a different kind of competition, the political competition? Karen?

Kedrowski: Well, I think that in many respects Title IX has been an incredibly successful piece of legislation. And as we have seen, women's sports are enjoying much more support, that there are many more opportunities for women and girls to participate in sports, there are many more opportunities for women to receive college scholarships in order to play sports and, of course, we have seen this even penetrate as far as the Olympics level where women for the last couple of summer Olympics have actually been a majority of the American team that has gone there. But I would also note that Title IX has had enormous impact in other ways. It has opened up fields of study to women, it has opened up scholarship opportunities aside from athletic scholarships to women, it has ensured that there are no gender quotas used to keep the number of women low in certain professions. And now we see that women actually earn a majority of all degrees from high school diplomas through Ph.D. and we also know that women are a majority of those or have reached parity in medical and law schools and are very close to reaching parity in dental schools. So, in terms of opening up professions to women and really changing the nature of college campuses, it has had a huge impact. And I think too that it has certainly helped women think about running for public office or becoming involved in local government because they no longer lack the official credentials that we see that are part of how women run for office, how people run for office, where we expect them overwhelmingly to have college degrees or even law degrees.

Murphy: I'm sorry to cut you off here. We're running out of time and I've got one question that I want to make sure I give you time to answer. Karen, last fall Iowa State conducted a study and a review after some people had raised concerns about comments made in Carrie Chapman Catt's history as she was pushing for women's suffrage, comments that some viewed as racist. Ultimately, the review, the vote went to keep the name with some, as I understand, some ongoing consideration and review. But the Carrie Chapman Catt Hall, Catt Hall, keeps its name. I just wanted to give you an opportunity to discuss that and give us your perspective on that.

Kedrowski: Right, so this was something that we obviously treated very --

Murphy: And sorry, I just wanted to let you know we've got about two minutes left. I apologize.

Kedrowski: -- at the Catt Center, the Catt Center's name was technically not part of the conversation, though that distinction I think in some ways was often overlooked. The Catt Hall name, after very careful review by a group of people who had not formed any opinions about Catt or made a public statement about that, was done very carefully. And it will not be reviewed again unless there is new information that comes forward. And I doubt that there will be. For one thing, Carrie Chapman Catt passed away in 1947, so she hasn't been saying anything new since then. But also, the review was incredibly thorough and gave a lot of people the opportunities to make public comment and to introduce new information and so forth. So, again, I think it's very unlikely that there will be new information that comes forward, in which case I think that even as there might be continuing conversation, it's important conversation about Carrie Chapman Catt, as a full human being who had flaws but also made enormous, enormous contributions to humanity and history. But that is an important learning opportunity for our students to know that people are complex and sometimes they make mistakes or say things that don't age very well over time. And I'm certain that I would be guilty of the same.

Henderson: Kelly, we have about half a minute left. As you look at the election ahead as a researcher, what do you want to dig into?

Winfrey: I think I'm really interested in women voters at this point in time. It's an area of interest to me anyway, but given the Dobbs decision, given in vitro fertilization and just the prevalence of this as an issue, I think that it will be something that is important in this election. So, I'm curious to see how that motivates women voters one way or another. And then I think, I'm curious just to see, we've got two very old white men that no one is particularly excited about. Well, not no one, not many people are particularly excited about. So, what will turnout be? How do we get young voters engaged? How do we get the more progressive part of the Democratic Party engaged? Those will all be questions that I'm looking for.

Henderson: Well, Kelly Winfrey and Karen Kedrowski, thank you for being on this edition of Iowa Press.

Kedrowski: Thank you.

Winfrey: Thank you.

Henderson: You can watch every edition of Iowa Press online at iowapbs.org. For everyone here at Iowa PBS, thanks for watching.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation.

The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure.

Elite Casino Resorts is a family-run business rooted in Iowa. We believe our employees are part of our family and we strive to improve their quality of life and the quality of lives within the communities we serve.


Across Iowa, hundreds of neighborhood banks strive to serve their communities, provide jobs and help local businesses. Iowa Banks are proud to back the life you build. Learn more at iowabankers.com.