For women seeking power in Harrisburg, look to Carson City | Fletcher McClellan

July 30, 2019 6:30 am

Bridget M. Kosierowski is sworn in to the Pa. House. (Courtesy Pa. House Democrats)

The 2018 midterm elections in Nevada produced the first and only state legislature in the United States where the majority of lawmakers are women.

Fletcher McClellan (Capital-Star file)

Out of 63 total seats in the Silver State’s Legislature (42 in the state Assembly, 21 in the state Senate), women occupy 33 — including a majority in the Assembly. The Assembly and Senate majority leaders are women. Women chair seven of the 10 standing committees in each house, including the taxing and spending committees.

The Nevada Assembly was spectacularly productive this year, enacting more than 600 laws, including a minimum wage hike; health insurance protection for persons with pre-existing conditions, mandatory paid leave, comprehensive background checks on gun purchases, and same-day voter registration.

It is hard to determine how much of Nevada’s legislative output in 2019 can be attributed to female leadership, apart from the influences of party, constituency, and ideology.

This year marked the first time in 25 years that Democrats controlled the governor’s mansion, the state Senate, and the state Assembly, the latter by more than two-thirds majority.

There was accelerated action on such key issues as equal rights, women’s health, sexual assault, sexual misconduct, and pay equity. Contrary to states where abortion bans were recently enacted, Nevada lifted restrictions on abortion access.

Certainly men are not unconcerned about such issues, but it can be argued that women legislators are likely to give them higher priority.

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Moreover, research indicates that women in leadership exercise power differently than men do, emphasizing cooperation and compromise rather than competition and hierarchy. As a result, according to some analysts, female leaders are better able to get things done.

In contrast to the power balance in Carson City, the capital of the Silver State, it is fair to say that, while their ranks are growing, women lawmakers still have significant ground to make up in Harrisburg.

As the Capital-Star’s Sarah Anne Hughes reported in April, while a record-setting number of women are serving in the 203-member state House, they still make up a quarter of the total body. This is progress — are recently as 2010, Pennsylvania ranked 46th nationwide in the percentage of female state representatives.

Pennsylvania women are assuming new leading roles and forming a deep bench. Six officers of the two chambers are women, three Democrats and three Republicans, serving as caucus chairs, caucus administrators, or policy committee chairs. Notably, women occupy 23 Democratic and 11 GOP subcommittee chairs in the House.

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In recent years there has been movement on issues important to women. However, Governor Wolf and the legislature are sharply divided on reproductive freedom issues and a #metoo agenda awaits action.

Additionally, lawmakers failed to raise the minimum wage for the two million low-wage earners in Pennsylvania, 61 percent of whom are women.

State Rep. Patty Kim, D-Dauphin, sponsor of a Wolf administration-backed bill to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $12 and eventually to $15, reportedly told the House Democratic Caucus, “If more women had been in the negotiating room, we’d have a higher minimum wage.”

The issue of women’s power in the legislature was further dramatized by the viral video of Sen. Katie Muth, D-Chester, being shouted down by Republican Senate leaders, who were raising procedural objections as she read a letter from a constituent who relied on the state general assistance program, which was eliminated in budget negotiations.

It was not a good look.

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If research on state legislatures is predictive, opportunities for increased female influence in Harrisburg should open up sooner than later.

According to critical mass theory, when the percentage of women in the legislature reaches 15-20%, the concerns of female lawmakers begin to be taken more seriously.

On the other hand, increased numbers of women, even in leadership positions, is no guarantee of power.

Some studies show male legislators resist challenges to their dominance, engaging in such disruptive activities as frequently interrupting female colleagues, questioning the authority of female witnesses, and offering hostile amendments to female-sponsored bills.

Alternatively, the effects of gender may be neutralized as legislators vote increasingly along party and ideological lines. Which, if true, means that the effectiveness of women in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, as in Nevada, depends on party politics.

One of the interesting aspects of gender representation in Pennsylvania is that until the 2018 midterm elections, there were as many or more Republican women than Democratic women in the legislature.

Whether the new configuration, in which 57 percent of the female delegation is Democratic, leads to greater partisan behavior, woman power, or both will be worth following.

Regardless, we should not be surprised to see more gender conflicts in politics as the 2020 elections approach, especially if the eventual Democratic presidential nominee is a woman.

Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter at @mcclelef.

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Fletcher McClellan
Fletcher McClellan

Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @mcclelef.