Sen. Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven Credit: Gil Ford Photography
State Sen. Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven

Sen. Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven, has spent much of her legislative career working to update Mississippi’s sex education curriculum, establish domestic abuse as grounds for divorce and create a pay equity law.

Each of the proposals to require that men and women receive equal pay for doing the same job were again unsuccessful this legislative session.

Erica Hensley, editor of Mississippi Today’s Inform[H]er newsletter, sat down with Sen. Doty recently to talk about these issues.

Mississippi Today: Does it concern you that there are only 24 woman legislators serving the state (out of 171), and how can we increase this number?

Sen. Sally Doty: It concerns me, but I really think that we are going to see a growth in the number. Look at our professional schools that have increasing women enrollment. Look at med schools and law schools. With that being said, it’s a tough life for a woman — you’re away from your family a lot and it affects your family. It’s a tough career. People pick apart your life and your votes and a lot of women, maybe they can handle it, but they don’t want their family to.

It is such a traditionally male-dominated area (and) women aren’t necessarily encouraged to run. In fact elected officials have so much impact on policies, I think we should (shift the way we think), and get the message out … There is a (perceived) different standard for women. When I ran for U.S. Congress, I was asked, “How are you going to balance this with your family?” I guarantee that wasn’t asked to my male counterpart, but I don’t let it bother me.

When I talk to young women in college, many of them ask me, “So, do they take you seriously?” My answer to them is, “Heck yes, they take me seriously!” In the Legislature you have to prove you can handle things and that you study and are prepared. You have to earn their respect.

Mississippi Today: Why is sex education in schools important, and how can it be improved with the “abstinence only” and “abstinence plus” curriculum?

Sen. Doty: The knee-jerk reaction of a lot of school districts is to choose abstinence only. They don’t even look at the curriculum, just the optics of it. But the way it’s set up is a little problematic for our schools … to me a lot of the provisions of the bill really work against providing some good quality sex ed. We require boys and girls to be separated, we require parents to opt in not opt out.

I wanted to make some real common-sense changes and allow some more choices and to really talk about our curriculum, but I haven’t brought it up again because I don’t think the atmosphere has changed very much. I don’t think it would be successful, but I’m going to wait a few years and try again. We need the evidence-based curriculum that’s been shown to work, and I think it’s a great opportunity to talk about these issues with boys and girls in the same classroom.

I had one of the older senators tell me “Sally, you just can’t talk sex on the floor of the Senate.” He was kind of teasing, sort of, and I said, “You know, senator, it’s very important, and I’m going to continue to talk about it, because I think it’s a real problem in our state.”

Mississippi Today: You have a new equal pay bill up this year, which is one of five filed this year. Why is it important to women across the state?

Sen. Doty: We have a federal equal pay provision that does provide some relief but I think it’s important to have a state version as well that will allow you to go through state court. I think it’s very important. I think it is a real issue, and a lot of the talk around it becomes, “Oh, well, women chose to do different things.” Yes, sometimes we do. But often we do the exact same jobs and get paid differently.

This is not about different job responsibilities — this is about when you’re doing the same work and you should be getting the same compensation. I think folks don’t want to believe it happens, but it does.

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Erica Hensley, a native of Atlanta, has been working as an investigative reporter focusing on public health for Mississippi Today since May 2018. She is a Knight Foundation fellow for our newsroom’s collaboration with local TV station WLBT and curates The Inform[H]er, our monthly women and girls’ newsletter. She is the 2019 recipient of the Doris O'Donnell Innovations in Investigative Journalism Fellowship. Erica received a bachelor’s in print journalism and political science from the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and a master’s in health and medical journalism from the University of Georgia Grady College for Journalism and Mass Communication.