By MR Byrum • February 04, 2010•Writers in Residence
It hardly seems appropriate to begin a column about state and local legislative issues affecting women without addressing the lack of women in the legislature. A former female state representative once told me that she wanted to see more women in the legislature, but not because she thought that they were more capable legislators or better policy makers. She wanted to see more women in the legislature because women make up half of the population, half of the opinions, and half of the insight – a half that is largely untapped. In my state, between the House and Senate, there are nearly 200 legislators. However, only 20 percent of these seats are held by women, a ratio that has not changed in roughly two decades. Women get elected in state and local races at nearly the same rate as their male counterparts, which leaves only one question to be asked. Why aren’t women running?
After the jump, why a citizen legislature and term limits disadvantage women ...
This state legislature, like many, is largely a citizen legislature, made up of working men and women who leave their full time jobs to make policy for a few days out of the week, a few months out of the year. There are no career or educational barriers as to who can hold office. Legislators may be lawyers, accountants, business owners, teachers, tailors, or retirees. Some are recent college graduates, others are great-grandparents. While electing officials who are truly “of the people” may seem like an ideal situation, I believe this is one of the factors which keep women, especially mothers, from running for office. To participate in a citizen legislature, women would have to be willing to leave their homes, their families, and their careers for months. Not only is this a strain on families, but it is also a strain on careers and household incomes. Here, legislators only make $35,000. This is honestly not a terrible wage for only serving 5 months. However, for an attorney, how many billable hours have been lost, how many client relationships strained? For a farmer, how many hours of planting are now gone? For a teacher, that constitutes the entire Spring semester. When law makers pack up their bags and go home in May, will their job and family still be the same as when they left in December?
The second barrier that prevents women from running for office is the term limit. Sure, in theory, term limits sound fantastic. Give new people a chance, and prevent law makers from becoming institutionalized. However, with just a few years allowed in one position, the uncertainty that is present in all political careers becomes paramount. No one can just be elected and work hard to do the job they are elected to do, because they can only be there for eight years. Office holders must always be looking at the next step. They must not only focus on what will get them re-elected to their current position, but what will get them elected to the next office. This intense insecurity again, puts yet another strain on families and careers, another strain that many women would simply rather live without.
Finally, I believe that it is the lack of women in the legislature that prevents women from becoming legislators. Yes, women can get elected and they have. There are nearly 40 females in the state legislature proving that fact right now. However, with fewer women in office, there are fewer role models to show that it can be done, fewer women to hire fellow women as campaign managers and chiefs of staff to give women the experience they need, and fewer female names on the ballot that just plant a tiny idea in another woman’s mind.
Is there still chauvinism in state government? Definitely. Is sexism and sexual harassment still rampant in the state Capitol? Sure. However, I think that system itself is playing a key role in keeping female insight out of law making through structures of citizen government, term limits, and an already present lack of female participation. Change will not be swift.