Women Gain Record Power in State Legislatures
This story has been updated to correct the title of Kelly Dittmar and to accurately reflect the number of states with female house speakers.
Nevada state Sen. Pat Spearman, a Democrat and chief majority whip, successfully shepherded legislation in 2020 requiring pharmacists to honor 12-month doctors’ prescriptions for birth control pills, over the objections of some male lawmakers.
“We had men on a committee making statements like, ‘if you give them a whole year’s supply, they are going to sell them,’” Spearman recalled in a phone interview. “People don’t get them to sell them, they get them to use them.”
Women in the Nevada legislature, the only one with a female majority, brought focus to the issue, Spearman said.
“There’s no doubt that it would not have gotten done [in 2020] had women not held power,” she said.
That bill and others addressing the disproportionate number of Black women who die in childbirth and designating areas for nursing mothers, for example, “sailed through because we had women on the committees who understood what they were talking about,” Spearman said.
A similar birth control bill was sponsored in Virginia in 2017 by state Rep. Eileen Filler-Corn, a Democrat. Over the next few years, Filler-Corn also took on other women’s issues. She successfully put into law a requirement that campus police investigating sexual assault crimes undergo sensitivity training, and stopped internal ultrasound requirements as a prerequisite to abortions.
Filler-Corn is now the speaker. She presided over the House of Delegates when Virginia became the 38th and final state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 2020.
While the ERA is hung up in court over an expired time period for ratification, Filler-Corn’s rise and Spearman’s clout epitomize the power now wielded by the record number of women serving in state legislatures this year: They make up about 30% of the lawmakers, up from 25% in 2018. But even more important than the raw numbers is the fact that women have gained real leadership power—the right to set agendas, mold legislation to their liking and use their leverage to get bills passed.
At present, 87 women serve in leadership roles nationwide—speaker of the House, president of the Senate, speaker pro tempore, Senate president pro tempore or majority or minority leader, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“It’s important to get more women in legislatures overall, but also into positions of power where they also get to set the agenda,” said Kelly Dittmar, director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “We spend a lot of time talking about what they add to the conversation; these women in leadership get to determine what conversations are had.”
Besides Filler-Corn, five other women serve as speakers, in Maryland, Minnesota, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. All are Democrats. In 10 states there are no women in leadership.
Approximately 2,259 women serve in the 50 state legislatures. Of those, 1,509 are Democrats, 729 are Republicans, seven belong to a third party and 14 are nominally nonpartisan because they serve in the Nebraska unicameral legislature where the seats are not assigned by party.
Nevada tops the list, with more than half of its lawmakers—60.3%—being women. West Virginia is last, at 12% female. Most of the Southern states have few women lawmakers, while states in New England and the West generally have the highest percentages of women in the legislature.
Nevada is the first state where women have ever held the majority in any U.S. state legislature, reaching 51% of the seats in December 2018.
Sondra Cosgrove, a history professor at the College of Southern Nevada, a community college with campuses in Las Vegas and other parts of the state, said the percentages are fine, but “you have to make sure they are just not being tokenized. Are they able to help set agendas? Thankfully, we’re seeing those milestones being met as well. Women are at the table when decisions are being made.”
And it’s not just that female leaders are affecting “women’s issues,” such as child care or birth control, she added. “What we are seeing is women applying a gendered lens to all bills.” That includes things such as addressing people dropping out of the workforce during the pandemic, most of whom are female.
Representing constituents involves knowing which issues they are worried about. Filler-Corn, for example, who represents Northern Virginia, where traffic was a prevailing issue prior to the pandemic, made transportation one of her priorities and succeeded in getting a transportation bill passed in 2020.
In Virginia, more women are seizing power. There are seven Democratic women in the state’s Senate and 25 in its House, along with four Republican women in the Senate and six in the House—30% of the legislature. Ten years ago, when Filler-Corn was first elected, the total was 19 women in the House and eight in the Senate—19.3%.
Filler-Corn “gained power mainly the traditional way, proving herself dedicated, competent and hard-working over years in the House of Delegates,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
“When the Democrats gained control after a generation, she was a logical choice. With so many women in the Democratic caucus—and women voting heavily Democratic in elections—it was obvious that the next Speaker should break the uniform lineup of men in the top position,” he said in an email.
More Republican women also are running and winning in Virginia, Sabato noted, though not as many as Democrats. “The GOP instinctively recoils from recruiting women or minorities on a wide scale, though they’ve realized that the white male vote isn’t enough to sustain them,” he wrote.
Rosalyn Cooperman, a professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia, said women often find avenues to move up in state legislatures because they tend to stand out on the committees to which they are assigned, due to their underrepresentation.
“It’s an opportunity not to just get seated on committees but to get seated on committees where they will wield influence and get power within the institution,” she said.
Sometimes women use more radical positions to get noticed and get elected, she said, mentioning Virginia state Sen. Amanda Chase, the Republican who appeared to voice support for the U.S. Capitol rioters, U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, a Colorado Republican who used guns as a backdrop in video calls on legislative business, and U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a first-term Georgia Republican who was removed from two congressional committees after spouting conspiracy theories.
“You have to be careful how you make a mark,” Cooperman said. In state legislatures in particular, members need allies in their own party, and grandstanders sometimes get shut out.
“When you don’t have [allies] your ability to represent constituents is lacking and you don’t last very long,” Cooperman said.
When legislatures don’t have a lot of women, it can make a difference in how legislation concerning women is perceived and whether it passes.
For example, South Carolina, which has the sixth lowest percentage of women in the legislature (17.6%), recently approved a bill that would ban most abortions. While about a fifth of women oppose abortion in all cases—the same percentage as men—it did not go unnoticed that a mostly male legislature was making laws governing women’s bodies.
“SC’s mostly male Legislature is about to ban most abortions. How will SC women vote?” asked the headline in The State, South Carolina’s leading newspaper.