Women take seats in state Legislature as gender hurdles appear to persist

By Guest Columnist MELITA EASTERS, executive director of Georgia’s WIN List

Record-setting numbers of women took the oath of legislative office under Georgia’s Gold Dome last week, representing a new wave of enthusiasm and energy for progressive ideas that mirror the media “buzz” surrounding the new class of congresswomen on the national stage.

Melita Easters

Melita Easters

The newly elected Georgia women have developed a spirited “sisterhood” over months of campaigning together. In some cases, House and Senate candidates sharing contiguous districts hit the campaign trail in tandem to knock on doors and appear together during suburban subdivision homeowner meetings. These strong bonds will carry over to their service in the General Assembly as they work together to push for the progressive policies on prominent display in their campaign platforms.

Women now comprise 30.9 percent of the 236-member Georgia General Assembly. This percentage exceeds both the percentage of women serving in Congress (23.7 percent) and the average percentage of women serving in state legislatures nationwide (28.6 percent.)

According to a report by the Center for American Women in Politics, an affiliate of Rutgers University, Georgia ranks 19th in the nation for the percentage of women in the state legislature for 2019, a jump of four spots from the 2018 ranking of 23rd. In Georgia, Democratic women outnumber their Republican colleagues 3.3 to 1.

The 30 percent benchmark is often identified as the necessary level of representation, or “critical mass,” needed in any legislative body to significantly impact the political process or passage of legislation. Republicans hold the 62 percent majority in the Georgia Senate, 35 to 21, and a 58 percent majority in the House, 105 to 75.

The 13 newly elected women from the 2018 election cycle join a women’s caucus which saw six new faces following 2017 special elections and three new faces in 2016. These women include the expected attorneys, businesswomen and long time community activists, but also include four with health care careers, including one who is a doctoral epidemiologist. Georgia also continues to lead the Southeast for the number of women legislators of color and those who identify as LGBTQ.

One top priority for these newly elected women and their incumbent colleagues is the expansion of Medicaid to cover almost half a million of Georgia’s poorest citizens and return $3 billion in federal funds yearly to the state. Georgia clearly has a health care crisis:

Georgia WIN, 2019

Candidates endorsed by Georgia’s WIN List who won their 2018 campaigns for seats in the Georgia House or Senate gather during the first week of the 2019 legislative session. Credit: Kelly Jordan

  • Seven rural hospital have closed in the last seven years;
  • Georgia ranks dead last in the nation for its high maternal mortality rate;
  • Nine Georgia counties have no doctors;
  • Sixty-nine counties have no pediatrician;
  • Seventy-nine counties have no OB/GYN.

Medicaid expansion is a popular concept, supported by about 70 percent of Georgia’s population and even more than half of Republicans, according to an online poll of 1,250 adults conducted in October 2018.

Another top priority for the newly elected women is a verifiable paper trail for future voting systems and an end to procedures around voting which many, including a few federal judges, see as voter suppression tactics aimed particularly toward Georgia’s growing minority population.

Other issues, which the women candidates campaigned to promote, are a $15 minimum wage, the protection of reproductive freedom and pledges to vote against measures which would discriminate in any way against those in the LGBTG community. The women largely support accepting immigration policies, particularly since two of the newly elected women are immigrants themselves.

There is clear evidence women are becoming a stronger voice at a time that is receptive to the unique talents women bring to the, “room where it happens, where the sausage gets made,” to quote lyrics from Hamilton, most popular Broadway musical in recent memory.

For example, a 2018 Pew Research Center study says the majority of Americans see women as more compassionate and empathetic leaders in both the political and business spheres. Women are also viewed as better at reaching compromise – an attribute sorely needed in these politically divisive times. The Pew research indicates women are seen as being more honest, more ethical and better at standing up for what they believe in than male colleagues.

Two Georgia State University professors, Jeffery Lazarus and Amy Steigerwalt, make a similar case in their book, Gendered Vulnerability. The premise is congresswomen in general work harder because they feel more vulnerable to electoral defeat. They assert women in Congress:

Gendered Vulnerability

Women officeholders work harder than their male counterparts, according to the 2018 book by two associate professors at Georgia State University. Credit: press.umich.edu

  • Secure more federal funding for their districts than men;
  • Devote more time and energy to constituent services;
  • Introduce more bills and resolutions;
  • Pursue policies that are more responsive to what voters want.

“Women can be counted on to raise issues others overlook, to support ideas others oppose and to seek an end to abuses others accept,” said former Secretary of State Madeline Albright. In fact, in underdeveloped countries, the empowerment of women often leads to increased economic productivity and reductions in child and maternal mortality, according to the National Democratic Institute, where Albright serves as board chair.

Even as women take office in record numbers, they have faced pushback from the all male GOP power brokers still in charge. Last week in the Georgia Senate, women senators publicly criticized the marginalization of women when it comes representation on the more powerful committees. As an example, two highly qualified women attorneys were not placed on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where two spots are filled by men who are not attorneys and the committee size was reduced since last year. House committee appointments were released Friday afternoon and early reports indicate women in the house are no more happy with their collective treatment than their Senate colleagues.

However, these newly elected women will persist against all roadblocks thrown their way. Women who have served decades in the General Assembly have welcomed their new women colleagues with open arms as they marvel at the energy and enthusiasm they bring to the promotion of progressive policies.

There may have been old rules about saying quiet “for the first year” of legislative service, but the newly elected women have tossed those rules to the wind as many have already made inaugural speeches from the well of the House and Senate to discuss important issues in this now week-old session.

Republican men with long tenure will be well-served to acknowledge the shifts in public opinion the election of these new women signal. If Republican power brokers ignore the arguments newly elected women make during policy debates in 2019 , they can rest assured the women in the gallery will be watching and planning their own 2020 campaigns.

Note to readers: Melita Easters leads Georgia’s WIN List, the state’s only political action committee devoted to training, recruiting and electing women to statewide office and legislative seats. For more information visit the website and follow on Facebook or Twitter: @gawinlist.

 

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