HomeLearning CenterHow Many of Your State’s Lawmakers Are Women? If You Live in the Southeast, It Could Be Just 1 in 5.

How Many of Your State’s Lawmakers Are Women? If You Live in the Southeast, It Could Be Just 1 in 5.

Originally published by Jennifer Berry Hawes for ProPublica

London Lamar rose from her chair in the Tennessee Senate last spring, stomach churning with anxiety as she prepared to address the sea of men sitting at creaky wooden desks around her. She wore a hot pink dress as a nod to the health needs of women, including the very few of them elected to this chamber, none of whom were, like her, obviously pregnant. She set her hands onto her growing belly.

The Senate clerk, a man, called out an amendment Lamar had filed. The Senate speaker, also a man, opened the floor for her to speak. The bill’s sponsor, another man, stood near her as she grasped a microphone to discuss the matter at hand: a tweak to the state’s near-total ban on abortion access for women.

Lamar glanced around at her fellow senators, three quarters of them men. The imbalance was even more stark in the state’s House of Representatives, where almost 9 in 10 members were men. And Tennessee is no anomaly. Across much of the Southeast, state legislatures are more than 80% male.

On this day, the Tennessee Senate was poised to take a final vote on a bill that would allow abortions to prevent a woman’s death or “serious risk of the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function.” Lamar stood to pitch a broader health exception.

A Democrat in the substantial minority, she could have appealed to her female Republican colleagues. Although they oppose abortion, they bring to the debate their personal knowledge of women’s bodies and experiences. But there were only three of them in the 33-member Senate. Instead, Lamar turned to the two dozen Republican men.

She reminded them that four years earlier, she was 32 weeks pregnant and serving in the House when her blood pressure suddenly spiked. Her placenta ruptured. Her son died in utero, and she faced a terrifying risk of a stroke. “It’s personally one of my biggest fears that this thing would happen again to me,” she told them. If it did, she feared the proposed law would prevent her doctor from protecting her health.

She implored the men to see her as a family member: “I’m telling you as your own colleague, as your niece, baby girl. I love you all. It is real, not only for me but for women all across the state.”

Scenes like this play out across the Southeast, even as the U.S. as a whole saw a record number of women elected to statehouses last year. Nationally, one-third of legislators are women, the most in history. In recent years, three states — Nevada, Arizona and Colorado — achieved parity.

But much of the Southeast lags far behind.

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