See Where Women Have The Most And Least Political Representation In The U.S. | KUOW News and Information

See Where Women Have The Most And Least Political Representation In The U.S.

Apr 11, 2016
Originally published on April 13, 2016 12:48 pm

Wyoming is sometimes called the Equality State — it had the nation's first female governor and was the first territory to give women the right to vote. But that legacy isn't visible on the floor of the state Senate. Just one of the 30 state senators is a woman.

"I am the queen of the Senate. I have my own little tiara," jokes Bernadine Craft, a Democrat who represents the mining town of Rock Springs.

Overall, just 13 percent of state lawmakers in Wyoming are women, the lowest rate of representation in the country according to data compiled by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Meanwhile, just 100 miles away, 42 percent of Colorado state lawmakers are women, the highest in the country. Having so many women in office has changed the overall tone at the state Capitol, said Colorado's House speaker, Dickey Lee Hullinghorst.

"This is no longer a good old boys club and I think any time you mix it up and represent a lot of diversity, I think it makes the tenor better," said Hullinghorst, who was the first Democratic woman to lead the chamber, although Republicans captured that honor more than a decade ago.

Women may make up half the population, but in the U.S. they rarely have anything close to proportional political representation. At the state level, where many aspiring politicians get their start, just 24.5 percent of lawmakers are women, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Getting Talked Into Running

It's hard to pinpoint why Colorado has done so well at electing women to its Legislature compared with Wyoming. Female lawmakers like to credit Colorado's independent, pioneer spirit, although Wyoming shares a similar history. Colorado was the first state to elect women to its Legislature, back in 1894, although momentum does seem to play a role.

"We really feel it builds on the tradition that we've established. So because we've had more women, we have more women," said Meg Froelich, who recently produced a documentary about women in Colorado politics.

One challenge that female candidates often encounter is getting the encouragement to run in the first place.

Craft never planned to run for office but was talked into running by a former female state senator.

"It took about three months to talk me into running," said Craft, who won that race to the state House in 2006 and later ran for state Senate, where she is now the Senate minority whip.

It's a common story for female lawmakers.

"As someone flippantly told me, a male legislative candidate wakes up one morning, looks in the mirror, and says, 'I should run for the state Senate, no looking back.' And women I have worked with have told me over and over someone asked me four times before I said yes," said Katie Ziegler, who compiles data on women for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Voting Rules, The Legislative Lifestyle, Make A Difference

The Wyoming Legislature wasn't always so lopsided. Back in the mid-1980s, a quarter of the state's legislators were women — among the highest nationwide at the time. The Equality State was living up to its name as a place where women could make a mark on politics.

"There were enough women that it wasn't — you weren't an oddity, you didn't feel like an oddity; it was just a very comfortable working situation," said Margaret Brown, who served in Wyoming's Legislature from 1983 to 1987.

Since then, the number of women in the Wyoming Legislature has steadily dropped.

"We're not doing a real good job at this point," said Brown.

In Colorado, term limits and party leadership may have made a difference. As lawmakers left office because of term limits, party leaders on both sides of the aisle actively encouraged women to run, especially in the state's swelling suburbs.

"I think both parties have discovered that women do well in suburbia," said Froelich, the filmmaker. "So if you want to win that election, it's often a winning strategy to put forward a woman candidate."

In the 1990s, Wyoming shifted from multimember to single-member districts, which Brown believes was detrimental. Under the old system, voters could pick multiple candidates to represent a larger electoral district.

"So maybe you like Suzie Q and you like John but you can only vote for one. And so you have to pick," said Brown.

For women who are are primary caregivers, it's especially difficult.

"It's very very difficult to juggle full-time employment and the Legislature, which is also a full-time job," said Craft.

Another barrier for female candidates is money, because male candidates often draw on wealthier donor networks.

"It might take five or 10 points of contact for a woman to raise $1,000 whereas maybe a male candidate can call up one person and get a $1,000 check," said Ziegler of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Local Problem, National Implications

When women don't run for office in states like Wyoming, Ziegler argues it's a national problem, too. Right now, about half of the current members of Congress are former state lawmakers.

"There's this pool of people that maybe someday will make a run for Congress, whether it's the House or the U.S. Senate. And there aren't a lot of women in that pool in state legislatures. And so there aren't very many women rising up to move to that next level," said Ziegler.

Even when there's a growing pool of female lawmakers, Colorado's experience suggests there's a glass ceiling that can sometimes keep them from rising higher. The state has never elected a female senator or governor and currently sends only one woman to Congress.

Female candidates are always facing obstacles "that somehow our male colleagues don't seem to have to go through," said former House Majority Leader Amy Stephens, a Republican who tried unsuccessfully to win her party's Senate nomination in 2014.

But like many female lawmakers in Colorado, Stephens says she does expect to see women break into the highest offices soon. After all, with so many women in the state Legislature, both parties finally have pretty deep benches of potential candidates.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Fewer than one-fourth of this country's state legislators are women. Here are two stories of women and political power, starting with Caroline Ballard of Wyoming Public Radio.

CAROLINE BALLARD, BYLINE: Wyoming is sometimes called the Equality State. It had the nation's first female governor and was the first territory to give women the right to vote. But that legacy isn't visible on the floor of the state Senate. Twenty-nine out of 30 state senators are men.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERNADINE CRAFT: I'm Craft.

BALLARD: Bernadine Craft is Wyoming's only female senator. She's a Democrat from Rock Springs, a high plains mining town of about 25,000 people. Craft is also a licensed psychotherapist, a former adjunct at the community college, the executive director of an educational services board.

CRAFT: And then while I was in the Senate, I was ordained as an Episcopal priest. So I'm also the Episcopal priest in Rock Springs.

BALLARD: So you're a little busy.

CRAFT: I'm busy (laughter).

BALLARD: But despite her many leadership positions, Craft says running for office had never occurred to her.

CRAFT: Never ever, and it was Senator Rae Lynn Job. And I actually have her Senate seat now. But at the time, she was still in the Senate and was looking for somebody to run for the House and came and talked to me and talked to me. It took about three months to talk me into running.

BALLARD: She was first elected to the state House in 2006 and is now the Senate minority whip. Craft is one of a small number of women who serve in the Wyoming House and Senate. Just 13 percent of lawmakers here are women, the lowest in the country. The Wyoming Legislature wasn't always so lopsided. Back in the mid-80s, a quarter of the state's legislators were women, among the highest nationwide at the time. The Equality State was living up to its name.

MARGARET BROWN: That is our reputation, and we need to be doing what we can to personify that reputation. And we're not doing a real good job at this point.

BALLARD: That's Margaret Brown. She served in the Legislature in the mid-80s.

BROWN: There were enough women that it wasn't - you weren't an oddity. You didn't feel like an oddity. It was just a very comfortable working situation.

BALLARD: Since the '80s, the number of women in the Wyoming Legislature has steadily dropped. There are a number of reasons, and it's difficult to say which has had the greatest impact. First off, in the 1990s, Wyoming went from multimember to single-member districts. Margaret Brown says she thinks that has been detrimental.

BROWN: And so maybe you like Suzie Q and you like John, but you can only vote for one. So you have to pick.

BALLARD: Women are often primary caregivers, and many juggle work obligations. With all of the different hats Bernadine Craft wears, she says finding time to serve in office can be tough.

CRAFT: It's very, very difficult to juggle full-time employment and the legislature, which is also a full-time job.

BALLARD: Another barrier for female candidates is money. Katie Ziegler compiles data for the National Conference of State Legislatures. She says male candidates often draw on wealthier donor networks.

KATIE ZIEGLER: It might take 5 or 10 points of contact for a woman to raise $1,000, whereas maybe a male candidate can call up one person and get a $1,000 check.

BALLARD: And if women aren't running for office in states like Wyoming, Ziegler says it's a national problem, too. Right now about half of the current members of Congress are former state lawmakers.

ZIEGLER: There's this pool of people that maybe someday will make a run for Congress, whether it's the House or the U.S. Senate. And there aren't a lot of women in that pool in state legislatures. And so there aren't very many women rising up to move to that next level.

BALLARD: People in Wyoming who want to change the situation in the state need only look south for inspiration. For NPR News, I'm Caroline Ballard in Laramie, Wyo.

MEGAN VERLEE, BYLINE: I'm Megan Verlee, about two hours down the interstate in Denver, Colo. which has the nation's highest percentage of female lawmakers. Forty-two of the state's 100 legislators are women.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED LEGISLATOR #1: Hello, Nancy.

UNIDENTIFIED LEGISLATOR #2: Oh, there she is.

UNIDENTIFIED LEGISLATOR #1: Glad you made it.

VERLEE: I expected to find a bunch of them at this women's history month reception hosted by their former colleagues. But it turned out they were mostly all off working.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED LEGISLATOR #1: Well, we're talking budget, so it's like...

UNIDENTIFIED LEGISLATOR #2: Are you starting it this year?

UNIDENTIFIED LEGISLATOR #1: Well, no.

UNIDENTIFIED LEGISLATOR #3: No, House is...

VERLEE: It's a little hard to get a good read on exactly why Colorado has done so well at electing women to its Legislature. Female lawmakers like to credit the state's independent pioneer spirit. But Wyoming has a similar history, and we just heard how they're doing. That said, Colorado was the first state to elect women to its Legislature back in 1894. And Meg Froelich, who recently produced a documentary about women in Colorado politics, says momentum seems to play a role.

MEG FROELICH: Well, we really feel it builds on the tradition that we've established. So because we've had more women, we have more women.

VERLEE: Term limits and party leadership also make a difference. As seats have opened up, party leaders have actively encouraged women to fill them, especially, Froelich says, in the state's swelling suburbs.

FROELICH: I think both parties have discovered that women do well in suburbia. So if you want to win that election, it's often a winning strategy to put forward a woman candidate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DICKEY LEE HULLINGHORST: The House will come to order. The pledge will be led by...

VERLEE: That's House Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst. She's the first Democratic woman to lead the chamber, although Republicans captured that honor more than a decade ago. Hullinghorst says having a lot of female lawmakers affects the overall tone of the capitol.

HULLINGHORST: This is no longer a good old boys club. And I think any time you mix it up and represent a lot of diversity, I think it makes the tenor better. It broadens the perspective in general.

VERLEE: For all the women serving under Colorado's golden Capitol dome, though, there does still seem to be a glass ceiling. The state has never elected a female senator or governor and currently only sends one woman to Congress. Former House Majority Leader Amy Stephens, a Republican, tried unsuccessfully to win her party's Senate nomination two years ago. Stephens says it's harder for a woman to raise the kind of money and political support needed for the big campaigns.

AMY STEPHENS: So if you're not fighting the party politic on one end, you're fighting the finance on the other and you're fighting something else that somehow our male colleagues don't seem to have to go through.

VERLEE: Like many other female lawmakers here, Stephens says she does expect to see women break into Colorado's highest offices soon. After all, with so many women in the state Legislature, both parties have pretty deep benches. For NPR News, I'm Megan Verlee in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.