Women Gain Record Power in State Legislatures

Source: Associated Press 

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.

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