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Gains made by women in state legislatures have largely stalled over past decade

by Laura Kliewer ~ July/August 2012 ~ Stateline Midwest »
Representation of women in state elective office has increased in the Midwest over the past 35 years, but since the late 1990s, the gains have slowed — and even stopped in some instances.
Exactly why the percentages have flat-lined since the 1990s is unclear, much like some of the other questions involving the under-representation of women in state government. Why, for example, do certain states have significantly higher rates of women in the legislature than others?
In the Midwest, nearly one-third of Minnesota’s state legislators are women (fifth-highest rate in the nation); in contrast, Indiana, Iowa and North Dakota fall below the national average of 23.7 percent.
“Scholars who have statistically examined the variation among the states ... have found no simple patterns,” Susan Carroll, a senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics, wrote in an article for CSG’s “The Book of the States.”
One idea is that efforts in states such as Minnesota to recruit women candidates have been more robust and successful than in others. That goes along with one consistent research finding: Female candidates fare as well as male candidates when they run for office, but women are less likely to run.
A survey by the center found that only 26 percent of women state representatives said it was entirely their own idea to run for their first elective office, compared with 43 percent of their male counterparts. Debbie Walsh, the center’s director, adds that women are less likely to be asked and also tend to wait to run until they are older.
A lack of effective recruitment, then, might also be why the percentage of women legislators has moved up only slightly since 1999. Illinois is the only state in the region at a historical high; about half of the Midwestern states experienced their peak in the 1990s.
“We know from research that women bring a different set of experiences, a different voice and a different perspective to the legislature,” Walsh says. “They are more likely than their male colleagues to have as a priority in their legislative portfolio issues that have an impact on women, families and children.
“You want diversity of all kinds among the people who are representing citizens in the legislatures because all of those different perspectives make public policy more responsive to the needs of the citizens.”
Kansas Republican Rep. Jo Ann Pottorff, who has been in office since 1985, agrees that women can bring a different perspective to the legislative arena.
“When I first started, many women were on the local school board, and then they went to the Legislature,” Pottorff says. “They had a good background in education, I think they knew how to deal with parents and children and education. Also, there were many [women] who had backgrounds in medical fields, nursing [for example].”
The backgrounds of women have diversified over the years, she says, but what remains important is having vital female voices in the Kansas Legislature.
Women tend to be under-represented in leadership positions as well. In only three Midwestern states, for example (Illinois, Nebraska and North Dakota), does the percentage of women who lead standing committees meet or exceed the percentage of women who are legislators. And of the top 41 leadership positions in the 11-state Midwest (the four party caucus leaders in each state and the Nebraska Unicameral speaker), only three are held by women.
“We have never had a woman speaker or a woman president of the Senate,” Pottorff says about her home state. “We’ve had very few women in leadership; it still seems to be a man’s world as far as the Kansas Legislature is concerned.”
Female representation in Midwest's state legislatures and leadership positions »
Women in statewide elective office in the Midwest »

Capital Closeup is an ongoing series of articles done by CSG Midwest highlighting institutional issues in state government and legislatures.
Past articles are available here »