What Happens When Women Legislate

Cheaper tampons. Office breaks to pump breast milk. No co-pay on birth control.

These are not the talking points of a ladies’ happy hour. They are among the State Senate and Assembly bills being considered in the Nevada Legislature. Not only were the bills designed solely with women in mind, they each were sponsored by a female lawmaker.

At 39.7 percent, Nevada now ranks near the top for women’s representation in state politics, second only to Vermont. The bills women are bringing to the State Senate floor this session range from the annual ranking of companies by how fairly they pay men and women to arguably the most historic — the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.

The state legislature is a testimony to what many who study gender inequity in politics theorize to be true: Increased gender representation directly translates into better consideration of women in the drafting of law and policy.

Although the 2016 presidential election is mourned as a symbolic impasse for women’s progress, it was momentous for female politicians in Nevada, at both the state and the federal level. Many have called President Trump’s election a wake-up call for American women, one that has inspired their increased grass-roots activism and political involvement.

But in Nevada, the ladies were already on the ballot before President Trump’s victory. Now they are getting to work.

What spring-boarded Nevada into a leader for gender equality in statehouses is not entirely clear. A study from the Center for American Women and Politics highlights that the root of gender imparity in political representation does not lie in whether women win races (they do), but in the discrepancy in the amount of men and women who run.

A national organization called Emerge America, which recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office, is attempting to address this problem. Emerge Nevada had nine of their graduates on state ballots last November.

Eight of them were elected.

Marla Turner, president of Emerge Nevada and secretary for the state Democratic Party, said many women assume they are unqualified to run for office. “When women come to us and say, ‘I don’t know if I’m a good candidate. I don’t have any skills for this,’ we start breaking it down,” she said. “They realize they can apply the skills from their work environments, from their involvement in their children’s schools, to the political process.”

Ms. Turner added that over the past three years, the level of interest from women who have applied to the Emerge Nevada program has nearly tripled.

Emerge does not give its trainees direction on the type of legislation they should pursue — it’s not focused on what are traditionally categorized as women’s issues. It strives to produce well-rounded candidates, albeit Democratic ones.

The expertise of this new wave of women politicians in Nevada certainly extends far beyond the experience of being female. But in celebration of Women’s History Month in March, the women of the Nevada Legislature used the session to highlight issues like the gender wage gap, family-friendly work policies and the “pink tax,” or the extra amount women are charged for items like feminine hygiene products — issues male politicians haven’t historically prioritized.

That effort, however, reveals a contradiction in women’s involvement in politics: Too much focus on gender can decrease the breadth of female candidates’ appeal and their electability, but gender equity has proved impossible to achieve without women’s voices championing it.

It’s why Hillary Clinton’s remarks last month encouraging young women to run for office were so poignant. Many of the barriers that prevent women from running — finances, an unequal burden of family obligations — are the products of the gender discrimination still inherent in our society and our laws, laws that are unlikely to change unless more women get involved.

We don’t have to dig deep to see how often male politicians’ rhetoric on the policies misses the mark of actually improving those policies. In a recent Missouri state legislative session, two male senators joked that women seeking abortions should go to the St. Louis Zoo.

Even in Nevada, tone-deaf misogyny still echoes in the chamber. After a nurse testified to the calls she received from low-income women forced to choose between feminine hygiene products and food for their children, a male lawmaker asked if he could get his jockstrap tax free.

There’s another confounding detail in the gender-representation gap: While Democrats are getting better, Republicans still lag far behind. Bringing more Republican women into the fold could play an enormous role in repairing some of the irreparable damage done by Donald Trump’s candidacy when it comes to how the party talks about women.

Studies also show that although female politicians have a wide range of positions, they often are more compassionate, better at working across the aisle and more willing to compromise, qualities intricately bound in successful policymaking.

An increased presence of women in elected offices will not only advance gender equity, it will subsequently help men, because women lawmakers are proving to be, across all the issues — women’s or not — more productive lawmakers.

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