Women are still vastly underrepresented in state legislatures, especially in the South

(Chris Jackson/Associated Press)

Women are still vastly underrepresented in state legislatures, especially in the South


March 9, 2024

Democrat Kayla Young and Republican Patricia Rucker often clash over abortion rights and just about everything else in the West Virginia Legislature, but they agree on one thing: Too few of their colleagues are women, and that’s hurting the state.

There are exceptions to every rule, but I think men generally consider this their area of ​​expertise, said Rucker, part of the Republican Senate supermajority that passed one of the nation’s strictest abortion bans, while Young, the only Democratic woman, chose it, the House was against it.

Nearly 130 years since the first three women were elected to U.S. legislative offices, women remain vastly underrepresented in state legislatures.

According to the Rutgers Center for American Women in Politics, women make up less than 25% of legislatures in 10 states. West Virginia is at the very bottom of that list, with just 16 women in the 134-member legislature, or just under 12%. That’s compared to Nevada, where women hold just over 60% of the state’s legislative seats. Similar low numbers are found in the nearby southern states of Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Louisiana.

It’s absolutely wild to know that over 50% of the population of West Virginia is female, and sometimes I’m the only woman sitting on a committee, period, said Young, currently the only woman in the House Artificial Intelligence Committee and was one of only two on the House Judiciary Committee when it greenlighted the state’s near-total abortion ban.

The number of women in U.S. legislatures has remained low, despite the fact that women have registered and voted in higher numbers than men in every presidential election since 1980 and across virtually every demographic group, including race, education level and socioeconomic status .

Over the past thirty years, voters have demonstrated their willingness to vote for women. But they didn’t have the chance to do that because women weren’t active, said Jennifer Lawless, chair of the University of Virginia’s politics department.

The gender gap in political ambition is as wide now as it was then, Lawless said, adding that women are far less likely to be recruited to run for office or think they are qualified to run for office in what they consider a hostile political environment.

And for those running in southern, conservative states that are still predominantly Democratic women, data shows they are not winning, as those states continue to overwhelmingly elect Republicans.

In 2022, 39 women were nominated for their parties’ legislative seats in West Virginia, and 26 were Democrats. Only two of the Democratic candidates won, compared to 11 of the 13 Republicans.

Debbie Walsh, director of the Rutgers Center for American Women in Politics, said there is more money, infrastructure and support for recruiting and running Democratic women candidates. The Republican Party often shies away from talking about what is labeled or dismissed as identity politics, she said.

It is a belief in some kind of meritocracy and the best candidate will emerge. And if it’s a woman, fine.’ They don’t say we don’t want women, but if it’s a man, that’s fine too, she said. There is no value in diversity in itself.”

Larissa Martinez, founder and president of Women’s Public Leadership Network, one of the few right-wing U.S. organizations that support exclusively female candidates, said identity politics within the Republican Party is a major hurdle to her work. Part of her organization’s slogan is: we are pro-women without being anti-men.

In 2020, Amy Grady, a small-town public school teacher, caused a major political upset when she defeated then-Senate President Mitch Carmichael in West Virginia’s Republican primary, following back-to-back years of strikes that saw school workers gather at the Capitol. .

Carmichael received more than $127,000 in contributions, compared to Grady’s self-funded war chest of just over $2,000. Still, Grady won by less than 1,000 votes.

You’re just constantly told, ‘You can’t do it, you can’t do it, you can’t do it,'” said Grady, who has now risen through the ranks to become chairman of the Senate Education Committee. And it’s just like, why would you even try it? “

Tennessee Sen. Charlane Oliver says she didn’t have many resources when she first raised her hand to run for political office. She had to rely on grassroots activism and organizing to win her 2022 elections.

Still, securing the seat was only part of the battle. Oliver, a 41-year-old black Democrat, is regularly tasked with providing the only outside perspective inside the supermajority Republican legislature.

They have no incentive to listen to me, but I view my chair as a disruption and give you a perspective you may not have heard before, she said.

Many male-dominated statehouses have passed strict abortion bans in Republican Party-controlled states since the U.S. Supreme Court in 2022 Roe vs. Wade destroyed. For many female lawmakers, this trend has meant sharing deeply personal stories about abortion and childbirth.

In South Carolina, the abortion debate resulted in an unlikely coalition of women uniting to filibuster a near-total abortion ban. The five female senators, three Republicans, two Democrats and one independent, quickly became known as the Sister Senators as they took turns describing pregnancy complications, the dangers surrounding limited access to contraceptives and the reproductive system.

Their actions were praised by national leaders, but the consequences were quickly felt at home. Republican women faced criticism and promises of primary challenges in this year’s elections.

Women also support gun policies, education, health care and housing proposals.

Recently, some states have allowed candidates to make child care an allowable expense for campaign finance purposes. Young was the sponsor of her state bill, one of her priorities during her first session in the Capitol in the minority party.

During Young’s first term, she relied on a family member to care for her two young children while he was in the Capitol. But last year she was left without a solution when that caregiver died unexpectedly a few days before the session. Her husband, who works in television production, had to stay home and not work for two months, causing the family to lose income.

Young’s bill won the vote over Rucker, the first Latina elected to the West Virginia Senate. She also had to deal with the challenges that life as a working mother brings. She left her job as a teacher to homeschool her five children, and the family relied on her husband’s salary as a pediatric nurse to make ends meet.

I ran for office because I feel like that voice is actually important, really someone who lives paycheck to paycheck, said Rucker, a first-generation U.S. citizen who made the difficult decision to take her children away. I’m not here because of a title, I’m not here because of a position, I’m here to do my job, and I want to do my best.

Willingham and Kruesi write for the Associated Press. Willingham reported from Charlston, Kruesi from Nashville. AP journalist James Pollard in Columbia, S.C., contributed.


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