Kansas has become the caricature of the starkly red state the nation always thought it was. Only it wasn't. Until now.
I grew up in west Texas -- Midland, to be exact, the hometown claimed by George W. Bush -- and I experienced roguish conservatism. When I moved to Kansas to attend Kansas University in 1967, I was struck by the state's comparative progressive spirit and also the green, rolling hills of its northeast corner. I found the national stereotype of a flat, conservative state dead wrong.
I married a Kansas history buff who educated me on the proud history of women in politics: Kansas was the first state in the nation to elect a woman mayor, the first to swear in an all-female town council, an early state to pass the women's suffrage amendment. We've had two female governors when many states, such as neighboring Missouri, have had none. My present hometown of Topeka had enough people of character to fight school segregation, and is now the signature birthplace of Brown v. Board of Education, with a National Park Service site commemorating the end of separate but equal. My 16-year-old son attends diverse Topeka High School, where minorities make up the majority of the student body.
Contrast that with my stomping grounds of Midland. I graduated from lily-white Robert E. Lee High School, home of the Lee High Rebels, in May of 1967. We sang "Dixie" in a gym where a Confederate flag hung. Lee High wasn't integrated until 15 years after the Brown v. Board decision, and then only under the threat of federal marshals.
Despite its proud history, Kansas seems always maligned. In his famous editorial, "What's the Matter with Kansas?" published in the Emporia Gazette in 1896, our own William Allen White wrote: "Go east and you hear them laugh at Kansas, go west and they sneer at her, go south and they 'cuss' her, go north and they have forgotten her." Regional one-upmanship forgets that almost every state has its internal political and social contradictions, reflecting east-west, north-south, urban-rural interests. Why pick on Kansas, I've asked myself? Until now.