Women Lawmakers Are Making Gains—But Only in Some State Capitols

Virginia House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, a Democrat, takes the oath of office during opening ceremonies of the 2020 Virginia General Assembly. She is the first woman to hold that position.

Virginia House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, a Democrat, takes the oath of office during opening ceremonies of the 2020 Virginia General Assembly. She is the first woman to hold that position. AP Photo/Steve Helber


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The rise of women in state legislatures hasn’t been equally distributed across geographic and ideological divides.

With the convergence of Women’s History Month and the centennial celebration of women gaining the right to vote, women in state capitols across the country are celebrating their historic firsts. Some states’ firsts are ancient, as women served in certain legislatures even before the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920. The first woman elected to the state House in Oregon, for example, took office in 1914, and the first woman to join the state House in Arizona did so in 1915. 

Other gains, however, are more recent. U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto from Nevada this week offered congratulations to her home state for a historic first that happened last year. “In 2019, Nevada’s women made history, forming the first majority female legislature in the nation,” she said. “I’m so proud of … our openness to women’s leadership and accomplishments … At the same time, I’m only too aware of the obstacles that face women in Nevada and all over the country.”

Nevada was part of a wave during the 2018 midterm elections that saw more women elected to state legislatures than ever before. While Nevada currently holds the top spot in the rankings of states with the biggest share of women in the state legislature, several other states aren’t far behind. Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and Vermont all have legislatures where women make up 40% or more of elected officials. 

Jean Sinzdak, the associate director of the Center for American Women and Politics, said that while 2018 was exciting, the country is still nowhere close to parity. “We went from women holding around 25% of state legislature seats to 29% of seats,” she said. “The number of women in state legislatures nationally had been stagnant for so long.”

The states that are close to achieving parity have historically had a large number of women serving, Sinzdak said. But those at the bottom—which are mostly in the south, including West Virginia, Mississippi, Tennessee and Louisiana—are “roughly the same ten states rearranging themselves.”

The reason some states are succeeding in achieving gender parity while others struggle becomes obvious when looking at a party breakdown of the lawmakers. In Nevada, 27 out of 33 women in the state legislature are Democrats. In Colorado, it’s 35 out of 47. “A big part of this story is that women are doing better in places where there are strongly Democratic legislatures and there’s a caucus that can support greater numbers of women running,” Sinzdak said. 

In states where Republicans hold control of one or both houses—like many of those in the south—women haven’t made significant gains. “We’ll never achieve gender parity in a two-party system without Republican women, so the biggest looming challenge is the lack of women running on the Republican side,” Sinzdak said. “It’s been a striking trend that has gotten progressively worse.”

Republican leaders seem increasingly aware of the gender disparity in their party. Since 2012, the Republican State Leadership Committee has run an initiative called “Right Women, Right Now,” investing $28 million to elect female candidates to state level offices. New Mexico state Rep. Kelly Fajardo, who was this week elected to chair the initiative, said in a statement that “female leaders of tomorrow are on the rise in the Republican Party. We are fighting for tax cuts, job creation, better schools, and issues that matter most to families.”

It isn’t that women in deep red states are losing their elections—more often than not, they’re simply not on the ballot. Take a look at Texas—of the 83 Republicans in the state House, only six of them are women and Democratic women greatly outnumbered Republican women on the 2018 ballot. Republican state Rep. Drew Springer, in an interview with the Texas Tribune, blamed the lack of female representation on his party’s recruitment strategy. “I think the Democrats have done a better job of looking for females to run in races, whereas Republicans just look at whoever comes through,” he said. “We ought to maybe learn something from that playbook.”

Republican women account for an anemic 31% of all female state lawmakers, a number that has declined as the number of women elected to state legislatures has risen. 

In places where Democratic women have surged, the policies considered in state capitols have changed accordingly. In the 2018 elections, Virginia Democrats flipped 15 seats in the House, replacing 11 men with women and putting women at a historic high mark in the legislature. Since then, the legislature ratified the Equal Rights Amendment, rolled back abortion restrictions, revised House rules language to include “she” and “her” pronouns, and passed legislation to combat sexual harassment and discrimination, protect pregnant women, and mandate that schools provide free menstrual products. Since Nevada gained a majority-female state legislature, the state passed a bill of rights for sexual assault survivors and pushed through a pay equity law that stalled in previous sessions. 

Some experts suggest that the way to get more women into state capitols is to tailor election systems to level the playing field for newcomers. Political scientists argue that changes like multi-member districts and ranked choice voting could lead to more women in state legislatures because voters become more willing to take a chance on an unknown or underfunded candidate. Two rulings from the Federal Election Commission have also made gender parity advocates hopeful. In 2018 and 2019, the FEC allowed two mothers who were running for federal office to use campaign funds for childcare. 

With the election climate looking more favorable to women, Sinzdak said she’s excited to see what gains women make in 2020. “I’d like to see more women in legislative leadership. We’ve seen some firsts but far too few of them,” she said. “But to be clear, there’s still too many firsts happening. We want to get past that. We want to stop talking about ‘firsts.’”

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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