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No U.S. state legislature has ever been majority-women — until now

Nevada's 80th legislative session kicked off Monday with 32 women serving in the Legislature — and only 31 men.

by Emma Fidel
Feb 4 2019, 8:14pm

It’s been 20 years, but Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton still remembers the cigar smoke. During her first year as a Nevada state senator in 1999, she heard about a meeting happening in her committee chairman’s office without her. So she and a female lobbyist walked in through the side door and found a handful of men sitting around the conference table.

“Sometimes you can't wait to be invited. You have to put yourself in the room,” said Carlton, a Democrat from Las Vegas who became the longest-serving female legislator in the state’s history this session. “After that particular instance, I got invited to a lot more meetings,” she added.

Now, Nevada has more women in the room than ever, following an unprecedented number of women running for office nationwide in 2018. The state’s 80th legislative session kicked off Monday with 32 women serving in the Legislature — and only 31 men. That’s a slim majority of 50.8 percent women, but it’s the first time in the country’s history that a legislature has a majority of female lawmakers. Even with the razor-thin margin, women in the Nevada Legislature from both parties told VICE News they feel energized as leaders in gender parity and want to set an example for the rest of the country this year.

But only Democratic women have made sizeable gains: Of the state’s 32 female lawmakers, six are Republican — or 18.8 percent — a ratio even lower than the party divide among female legislators throughout the country. Nationally, 31.1 percent of female state lawmakers are Republicans and 67.8 percent are Democrats, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Twelve of Nevada’s female lawmakers are freshmen, including only two Republicans.

Like the rest of the country, Nevada experienced a blue wave in the midterms: The state elected its first Democratic governor in 20 years, flipped a U.S. Senate seat now held by a Democratic woman, and increased Democratic majorities in both legislative chambers.

Republican Assemblywoman Robin Titus, who represents the 38th District, wrote in an email that she’s “very concerned” that the party lost the women’s vote this past cycle. In the Nevada governor’s race between two men, 55 percent of women voted Democrat, while 39 percent voted Republican, according to AP VoteCast voter polling. In contrast, 43 percent of Nevada men voted Democrat in that race, while 52 percent voted Republican.

“That cannot continue to happen if we are going to survive as a party in Nevada,” said Titus, a deputy minority whip. She added that the party needs to “welcome diversity” and “identify with women of all ages, especially our millennials.”

Nevada’s gender split by party is similar to the national breakdown: In the 2018 midterms, 59 percent of women voted for Democratic candidates for the U.S. House, while 40 percent of women voted Republican, according to National Election Pool exit polls reported by CNN. At the same time, 47 percent of men voted Democrat in those races, while 51 percent voted Republican.

Before the 2018 midterms, women’s representation in state legislatures nationally had hovered around 25 percent for about a decade. Following the 2018 midterms, that number increased to 28.7 percent in 2019, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. Still, women make up less than 25 percent of the legislature in 17 states. In two of those states — Mississippi and West Virginia — it’s less than 15 percent.

“I was tremendously proud of Nevada and excited to be a part of this historic moment. It’s something that for the rest of my life, I’ll have be a part of my story,” said Sen. Yvanna Cancela, a 31-year-old Democrat from Las Vegas serving her second term.

“Not to be negative, but it’s also disappointing that it’s taken us until 2019 to get to a place where, it’s not even like we have an overwhelming majority, it’s just representative,” she added.

"Sometimes you can't wait to be invited. You have to put yourself in the room."

Nevada has nine women and 12 men in its Senate, but its female majority in the Assembly — 23 women to 19 men — is enough to tip the scales for an overall majority of women in the Legislature. Only two other states have ever had a female majority in a single legislative chamber: Colorado currently has a female majority in its state House, and New Hampshire previously did in its Senate from 2009 to 2010.

Nevada’s Legislature is biennial, so its last session was in 2017. That year, the Legislature was 39.7 percent women, putting it second in the country behind Arizona and Vermont’s 40-percent tie for first, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. Nevada lawmakers said the increase in female lawmakers and the creation of a dedicated Women’s Caucus last session led to the passage of more women and family-focused laws. The state finally ratified the Equal Rights Amendment, 35 years after the deadline Congress set. Female lawmakers also proposed a ballot measure to get rid of the so-called “tampon tax,” or sales tax on menstrual products, which voters passed on Election Day.

Female lawmakers in Nevada emphasized that women now hold the majority of committee chairs in both chambers: They lead six of the 10 Assembly committees, and seven of the 10 Senate committees, including the committees that control the state’s finances.

“Not only did we get the majority, but we showed up and decided we wanted to be in control of the money, and that’s what we’re doing in both houses,” said Democratic Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson, the majority floor leader from Reno.

Despite women’s overall majority in the state Legislature, men still hold the four highest leadership positions across the Senate and Assembly. Democratic Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, the chief majority whip from District 5 who also chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said the top leadership hasn’t yet reached gender parity because “if somebody’s doing a good job, we keep them there.”

But she said the Senate majority leader is likely to be a woman next session if the current leader runs for another position.

“I honestly feel that we’re going in the right direction by looking at our younger folks and younger women who are coming into the Senate,” Woodhouse said. “We are getting very serious about succession and preparing our members for leadership.”

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Assembly members gather before the Nevada State Assembly in Carson City, Nev., Monday, Feb. 4, 2019. Nevada's legislature will start its session Monday as the first overall female majority legislature in U.S. history. (AP Photo/Ryan Tarinelli)

Nevada’s gender tipping point came after the 2018 midterm elections, when officials had to fill vacancies in the Assembly left by lawmakers seeking higher office. On Dec. 18, county commissioners announced the appointment of two Democratic women from Las Vegas, Rochelle Nguyen in District 10 and Beatrice Duran in District 11, to fill the last open seats. Without them, Nevada wouldn’t have become the first state to achieve a female majority in its Legislature.

“It's amazing to be the first. I think it makes us unique,” said Nguyen, a criminal defense lawyer. “I think the state of Nevada kind of has this New Frontier kind of attitude.” Nguyen added that she’s excited "to see what a bunch of women can do.”

Nguyen is also the first Asian-American Democrat in the Legislature, according to the Nevada Assembly Democratic Caucus. She joins a Legislature that has at least five black and six Latina women. That’s at least a third of the female lawmakers — more than the national share of 24.3 percent of female legislators who are women of color, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.

Female legislators said Nevada leads the country with gender parity because of the state’s relatively small population, which makes political networking easier and allows change to happen more quickly. Many Democratic legislators also credited Emerge Nevada's work to recruit and train Democratic women to run for office. Emerge Nevada was founded in 2006 and has trained at least 12 current legislators, according to its website.

Freshman Assemblywoman Selena Torres, a 23-year-old Democrat from Las Vegas, is an Emerge Nevada alumna and the second-youngest legislator ever in the state, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. She’s also the youngest lawmaker in the Legislature this year.

“I won't have to experience much time without women in majorities,” she said.

Cover image: Nevada Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton, D-Las Vegas, left, and Sen. Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, co-chair a joint legislative money committee at the Legislative Building in Carson City, Nev., on Friday, May 17, 2013. (AP Photo/Cathleen Allison)