Record number of women in legislatures across nation
By Rebekah Staples
“Anything you can do, I can do better; I can do anything better than you.”
Some of you may recall these playful lyrics from the musical “Annie Get Your Gun.” In the show, sharpshooters Annie Oakley and Frank Butler croon about who can sing softer, higher, sweeter; they each boast of their personal abilities and accomplishments, with Annie going toe-to-toe with Frank at each musical interval.
I was reminded of this male-female bantering upon reading recent data from the Center for American Women and Politics, which shows a record number of women holding office in state legislatures across the United States. In 2021, a total of 2,279 state legislators – roughly 31 percent – are female. This represents a quintupling of the number of women serving in state legislatures since 1971, the first year data from CAWP was available.
The National Conference of State Legislatures compiled data beyond raw numbers; in fact, according to the NCSL, 87 women nationwide held a leadership position in either the House or Senate at the start of the 2021 legislative session.
Nevada tops the list of states with the most women serving at the statehouse, with an overwhelming majority – 60.3 percent – of legislators being female. Mississippi, on the other hand, falls in the bottom 10 states, where just 16.1 percent of state legislators are women.
But that’s not to say Mississippi is complacent when it comes to women in leadership. In 2018, and for the first time in state history, the Hospitality State elected a woman to the U.S. Senate, Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith. A former state senator, Hyde-Smith also broke the mold by serving as the state’s first female Agriculture and Commerce commissioner, from 2012-18.
Other notable females in Mississippi leadership include Republican Attorney General Lynn Fitch, who previously served as state treasurer. Amy Tuck, who was elected as a Democrat but later changed allegiances to the Republican Party, served as the state’s lieutenant governor after having served in the Mississippi State Senate.
Free Staters are perhaps most familiar with Hattiesburg native and Democrat Evelyn Gandy (and no, I’m not talking about the parkway). Ms. Gandy served in three statewide offices: first as treasurer, then commissioner of insurance and finally as lieutenant governor. But the title of first woman elected statewide goes to Democrat Nellah Massey Bailey, who was elected state tax collector in 1947. (Fun fact: Ms. Bailey also served as First Lady of Mississippi from 1944-46 after her husband Thomas was elected governor.)
But, let’s get back to women in the state legislature. CAWP data shows that Mississippi had 44 women candidates in 2019, with 28 ultimately capturing seats (17 in the House of Representatives and 11 in the State Senate). Interestingly, Jones County has two women voices representing its citizens at the Capitol in Jackson: GOP Rep. Robin Robinson and Democrat Rep. Omeria Scott.
“Each person, man or woman, has a valuable perspective based on life experiences,” Rep. Robinson said. “As a woman in politics, it is my goal to use my perspective and experiences to represent the people of our great state.”
I’m not surprised that women are starting to engage more politically. Indeed, Bloomberg reports that “in every U.S. presidential election since 1964, more women than men have turned out to vote.” Women are an important voting bloc and their increasing numbers in political races have caused the political parties to take notice – and action.
For example, the Mississippi Republican Party has recognized the importance of targeting women through programs like its Women Initiative Network (WIN-R), which provides specialized training in politics and public service to women across the state.
Tate Lewis, executive director of the Mississippi Republican Party, says the party “has benefited from the help of many amazing women who have stepped up to be leaders in our state and party.” He cites the work of the Mississippi Federation of Republican Women and two past chairwomen of the GOP, Evelyn McPhail and Ebbie Spivey, in the ’80s and ’90s. He points out that a working mom chairs the Republican National Committee and says women “provide an invaluable voice in the shaping and management of politics and public policy.”
This is a smart move for Republicans, considering the fact that the two genders have “differed markedly in their preferences at the ballot box,” according to Bloomberg, with women preferring Democrat candidates more than men. While this isn’t necessarily true in a red state like Mississippi, Republicans are wise to recruit women to their ranks. (As it stands, female legislators in Mississippi are just about evenly split between the two parties.)
From increased voter turnout among women to increased numbers of female candidates and officeholders, the demographic trends are encouraging from this Republican woman’s perspective. After all, who better to tackle important policy issues like childcare, abortion and even “pink taxes” on feminine products, than politically-conservative females?
So men, this is your notice. Women are continuing to make our voices heard in larger numbers. Pretty soon we’ll be able to truthfully answer Beyoncé’s timeless question of “who runs the world?” Girls, that’s who.
Rebekah Staples is president of Free State Strategies, a public policy consulting firm. She can be reached at email@example.com.