By Wendy Holdren
“I’m a farm girl from Marion County who was the first woman Mountaineer mascot, who worked on TV and is now secretary of state.”
Secretary of State Natalie Tennant said when many people hear about her background, they think, “Oh, I started out the same way Natalie started out. We have a lot in common.”
She explained that sometimes younger women try to see themselves in someone else, which makes having a mentor or role model especially important.
For her, that role model was her big sister.
“I was in the fourth grade when she was running for student body president at her high school. If she won, she would be the first girl. She ended up winning, and I just thought that was the coolest thing and I wanted to be student body president at my high school. You see it and you think, ‘Well, if she did it, I can do it.’”
Although Tennant wasn’t selected as student body president her freshman, sophomore or junior year, her persistence paid off when she was elected president her senior year.
“That’s what led me from a young age wanting to try something. That’s why it’s so important for women to take advantage of what we have, to take advantage of our voting opportunities.”
According to some recently released statistics, women are doing just that — West Virginia has approximately 660,000 registered female voters, versus 600,000 registered male voters.
And of the general election 2012 ballots cast, where the gender of the voter was known, 53.3 percent of voters were female.
Tennant’s office released the statistics March 5 and 6, just before Women’s Day at the Legislature.
“I think it’s an interesting number. There are 1.2 million registered voters. It’s not a man versus woman thing, but what we wanted to showcase, especially for Women’s Day, was that this is why voting is so important. This is why making sure your voice is heard through the ballot box is so important. You have the ability to influence the direction of the state, and the direction of local and county government with your vote. You outnumber a particular entity with just your voting. Women’s voices have the opportunity to be heard.”
She said these statistics show that women are making steps in the right direction.
As for issues women are concerned about in the state, Tennant said they are the same as any other West Virginian.
“First off, it comes to the economy, to jobs. Women want to make sure there are opportunities for their families, their children, for themselves. They certainly want their spouses or husbands to be able to have a job. I think the economy, for all of us, is so important. Then the question comes, how do you build that economy? How do you make sure that economy is strong and that people have jobs? The answers come through education and it all works together.”
Tennant also noted that many women are concerned with health care issues.
“Women, more likely, take care of the well-being of the family.”
She said if there is a child or spouse without health care, many women take that burden upon themselves.
With a growing number of concerns and ever-increasing numbers of women turning up at the polls, Tennant said that shows the importance of what can happen when you vote.
“You have the ability to make a difference through your vote. Women make a difference every day in their families’ lives. To take that one step further would be voting and making a difference in our communities’ lives, and then making a different in the state or county. If you take the time to vote, you’re going to make a difference.”
Tennant said nearly half of female votes in West Virginia came from women between the ages of 36 and 65.
As for the younger demographic, Tennant said it is important that they start the habit of voting.
“If it’s a younger woman, maybe in her mid-20s, you are starting your family, you are starting your adult life. You can make those changes. You can make the changes in society and in the environment in which you live through voting, through activities in the community and through running for office yourself. That’s why you get involved, especially at a young age, but at any age really.”
She also encourages women not to be intimidated by voting, running for office or even starting a business.
“Maybe you haven’t been in a political environment; maybe if you don’t know how it works, you may be intimidated by it. That’s one reason why we do what we do here in the Secretary of State’s Office with transparency and having webcasts. I always feel if someone has an understanding of government, they won’t be so intimidated by it and they’ll be more inclined to get involved.”
Many opportunities are out there, especially for middle school, high school and college-age women to take an active role in government and visit the state Capitol.
Programs such as Girls State, the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership Foundation, Young Republicans and Young Democrats are just a few examples of how young people can learn more about leadership and government.
“If they get the chance to visit the Capitol or the opportunity to go to a lawmaker’s office, then they’re going to understand a little better and not be so intimidated by it.”
Just as her sister was a role model for her, Tennant said she hopes young girls can find a mentor to help guide and motivate them.
“Tell them, ‘You can do it!’ You have the same opportunities and the same abilities as anyone else. Just give it a try. It’s OK to fail. It’s OK to get knocked down, because people like to see you getting back up.”
Tennant noted she lost in the 2004 race for secretary of state, but she didn’t let that get her down.
“When I ran in 2008, people loved hearing that I lost, but I came back and I’m trying it again,” sae said. “I only lost by 1,108 votes and I was a good sport about losing such a close race. I knew I was going to do it later, though; I wanted to be secretary of state.”
She doesn’t plan on stopping there, either. She lost the race for governor in 2011, but Tennant confirmed that she does plan to run for another office in the future.
To women looking for inspiration, Tennant offers the following advice:
“Surround yourself with those who are like-minded, who want to move forward. Ask a lot of questions. Don’t be embarrassed to ask questions and don’t be embarrassed to ask for help. I’m not sure that anybody is Superwoman. I certainly cannot hold that title. I don’t think we should set ourselves up to be that. Don’t put such high expectations on yourself that you’ll never reach them, but build up to it. Ask questions if you don’t understand a process, ask for help, and be able to give it as well.”