The Kentucky Derby may be the most spectacular event in all of sports, but it’s also where you’re bound to stumble into the grasp of a glassy-eyed local—attired in seersucker and reeking of mint and bourbon, welcoming you to “the Bluegrass State, where the horses are beautiful and the women are fast.” Sadly, our political horse races too, too often still have that early-season Mad Men feel as ambitious women not only need to fend off crude propositions by men in power, but also the default presumption in some circles that their career success is concomitant with how many times they’ve said “yes.”
It’s no wonder that so few Kentucky women jump into the muddy political ring: women represent less than 20 percent of the state legislature, only four have ever been elected to statewide office, and we’ve never had a female U.S. senator. Even as both national parties have furiously recruited women to run in the 2014 midterm elections, the Democratic women who have considered challenging Kentucky’s U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell have faced furious gender-based bashing, some of it from members of their own party.
First out of the gate was the actress Ashley Judd, who was pelleted with smarmy critiques of her film nudity, and whose words were continually taken out of context to make her sound like a radical, unpredictable woman. In reality, many in the Democratic establishment feared a Judd candidacy, because as the very antithesis of the good-ol’-boy club—with direct access to energized grassroots activists and unlimited campaign funds—Judd didn’t need them, and they understood the maxim that you cannot control what you did not create.
When Judd bowed out, the race was supposedly cleared for a “safer” female choice, Secretary of State Alison Grimes, the scion of a well-connected political family. But Grimes’s two months of telegraphed hesitancy, however, have prompted some moneyed interests to pressure her to run instead for attorney general in 2015.
Should Grimes move down ticket, Miss America stands ready to step in. Heather French Henry, that is, the northern Kentucky resident who won the famous beauty pageant—ahem, scholarship contest—in 2000 and later married the then–lieutenant governor in a televised fairy-tale wedding. Henry, who last week announced that she is considering the Senate race, doesn’t fit the beauty-queen stereotype: she is a dynamic, charismatic speaker, boasts Clintonian retail politicking skills, and has developed a policy platform that no one dares criticize as a passionate and successful advocate for disabled veterans for more than a decade.
And Henry has a strong historical precedent on her side: the 1979 Kentucky gubernatorial race was turned on its head by another former Miss America, CBS Sports icon Phyllis George. While the ballot listed the name of her husband, John Y. Brown Jr., George’s media sparkle and hand-to-hand political charm enchanted the state, and ultimately helped to produce a surprise victory for the first-time candidate and his insurgent campaign. Even today, Brown gives his ex-wife generous credit: “There’s no question about it,” the former governor told me, “I simply would not have won without Phyllis as a partner.”
Of course, Governor Brown was no slouch himself. The multimillionaire businessman, most famous for franchising Kentucky Fried Chicken and owning the Boston Celtics, articulated a fresh outsider message—“Let’s run Kentucky like a business”—to a populace exhausted by political corruption.
Alas, Henry’s husband is no Brown. Former lieutenant governor Steve Henry’s political career was continually tarred by scandals: pleading to misdemeanor campaign-finance violations, settling federal lawsuits for alleged Medicaid and Medicare fraud, even being forced to reimburse the state for public resources used at his and Heather’s wedding. The McConnell machine has already pounced: within 24 hours of Henry launching her trial balloon, the state GOP party had started heckling, calling her ”a bottom-of-the-barrel pick ... with such egregious political baggage and no applicable qualifications to run in one of the most important Senate races in the country.”
It’s hard to believe that Kentucky voters will hold a wife responsible for the sins of her husband—a different set of facts, indeed, liberated Hillary Clinton as a more vulnerable, and likable, candidate. Instead, it is the secondary charge—that Henry has “no applicable qualifications”—that should cause the most concern and, perhaps, spur on the most hope.
It appears that the McConnell campaign is already appealing to the misogynist strain in our state’s body politic, painting Henry as the dim beauty-queen companion of a corrupt husband.
The accusation, however, is manifestly absurd: the mother of two, children’s author, and small-business woman—who travelled the nation for years, championing our most cherished, suffering heroes—boasts an ideally unique résumé for the world’s most deliberative body. More significantly, whack-a-moling Henry could backfire, playing into the national Democratic narrative of a Republican “war on women.” If that happens, Kentucky could emerge, ironically, as ground zero for a more progressive, women-friendly politics.
Maybe the Bluegrass State isn’t the last, best hope for a revitalized feminism. But it’s comforting to think that some good could come out of this brutal, ugly process of challenging Mitch McConnell. And perhaps by throwing her tiara into the ring, Miss America 2000 could provide the coup de grâce to our state’s sexist political culture.