Following a record-setting election for women, state legislatures across the country are convening this year with at least 17 new women in top leadership roles.
But those gains are offset by another reality: At least a dozen women who led their legislative chambers or caucuses last year will no longer be doing so because of term-limits and decisions to seek higher office or retire.
The bottom line is that women made only modest gains in legislative leadership positions despite the wave of successful female candidates last November.
They will hold at least 34 of the 195 top spots in House and Senate chambers across the country this year, with two spots in the Alaska House still undecided, according to a review by The Associated Press. That’s up slightly from 30 top leadership positions last year.
“The first sort of instinct to hearing that number is, ‘Oh, how disappointing,’” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “But it just totally makes sense, given how people obtain those leadership positions. It’s a process, and it’s not going to turn around in one election cycle with a bunch of new folks at the table.”
Women won election in record numbers to Congress, governorships and state legislatures last November. The gains came largely from Democrats, as the ranks of Republican female lawmakers declined in states. The surge was propelled partly by opposition to President Donald Trump as well as the #MeToo movement, which drew attention to sexual harassment of women by men in positions of power.
With most state legislative sessions starting this month, the AP tracked the lawmakers chosen by colleagues for the top Democratic and Republican positions in each chamber. In most states, that’s the speaker and minority leader in the House or Assembly, and the Senate president and minority leader in the upper chamber.
Women comprise a little over 50 percent of the U.S. population and hold an historical high of 28.6 percent of state legislative seats, up from 25.4 percent last year, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. Yet even with those gains, women hold less than 18 percent of the top legislative leadership spots.
“We are constantly fighting up against the history of having older white men in these positions,” said Missouri House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, a 33-year-old social worker chosen for the top Democratic spot this session after serving just two years in the House.
Missouri, despite a below-average number of women in the Legislature, is one of just seven states where women hold at least two of the four top-ranking leadership spots. The others are Arizona, California, Iowa, Maine, Oklahoma and Vermont.
Although Oklahoma had a female governor for the past eight years, it had ranked behind only Wyoming in its percentage of female lawmakers. But the state notched the nation’s largest percentage increase this year, and Democrats chose women to lead both the House and Senate minorities.
Oklahoma’s rise in female lawmakers came after a teacher walkout last spring, when thousands of educators and their supporters flooded the Capitol for two weeks of protests over school funding. The protests coincided with Oklahoma’s candidate filing period, prompting dozens of teachers to run for office, many of whom won.
“When things get like they are in Oklahoma, with health indicators being so low, education funding being low, teacher pay being low, and then you combine that with something like the teacher walkout in a mostly female-dominated profession, it was sort of the perfect storm to get more women involved in politics,” said Rep. Emily Virgin, who was chosen by Democratic colleagues as the new minority leader.
Virgin, a 32-year-old attorney, already ranks high in seniority in the term-limited Oklahoma House, where she has served since 2011.
Greater numbers have not necessarily translated to greater political power for women.
Democratic-led Nevada will become the first state with a female majority in the Legislature when the session begins in February. Yet the top leaders of each party in both chambers will be men.
In Republican-led Georgia, Democratic women gained a total of 13 seats in the House and Senate while the number of Republican women remained flat in the Senate and fell by three in the House.
Republican state Sen. Renee Unterman was recently removed as chairwoman of the Senate Health Committee and replaced by a man. She said the Senate was playing “high stakes baseball” and that women were being left out of the game.
Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who is part of an all-male GOP leadership panel that makes committee assignments, noted that the total number of female committee leaders doubled from two to four this year. But Unterman pointed out that all four female chairs are in committees that get relatively low levels of legislation.
California Assemblywoman Marie Waldron, a Republican who is the chamber’s new minority leader, said it’s important to have female leaders because they bring a different perspective to the legislative process than men. She cited a stronger focus on family issues such as child-care for single parents and pay equity.
Earlier this month, several Democratic female lawmakers introduced legislation that would allow California candidates and lawmakers to use campaign money to cover child-care expenses. Many mothers wait to run for office until their children are grown or don’t run at all because they’re worried about juggling responsibilities, several female lawmakers said.
“Sometimes to fight for change you need a little help changing the diaper,” said Democratic Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks, whose daughter was 6 months old when she launched her campaign. She won her seat in November.
Even though California has women in three of its top four legislative posts, Waldron said there is plenty of history to overcome. California has had 4,278 male lawmakers since gaining statehood in 1850, and just 165 female lawmakers.
Once women gain leadership positions, it can help encourage others to follow in their footsteps, said Vermont House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski, a Democrat. The Vermont House speaker and minority leader and Senate majority leader also are women.
“For me, I see it so much when we have young women visiting the building and they notice it right away,” Krowinski said. “And I think it’s important for them to see that there are role models out there and that women can be in these roles.”
The Kansas City-based Women’s Foundation has launched a project in Kansas, Missouri and Arizona focused on increasing the number of women appointed to city, county and state boards and commissions. It’s a first step into politics that the nonprofit foundation, which promotes equity and opportunity for women, hopes eventually will lead to more women running for elected office and ascending to top leadership positions.
“We’ve come so far just to get them there in the legislature,” said Women’s Foundation President and CEO Wendy Doyle. “To move them into the leadership, it’s still needing to break through the barriers there. Men are supportive of men. There’s just the culture and an environment that still needs to be changed.”