Women, already underrepresented in the state Legislature, will hold fewer seats in 2017 despite a surge in the number of female candidates this year.
Those results, coupled with Hillary Clinton’s failed bid to become the first woman president, have left many women in Oklahoma feeling that their representation in politics has been dealt a blow.
When the Legislature reconvenes in 2017, there will be 19 women among the state’s 149 elected representatives — or just under 13 percent. Election results show a net loss of three seats; in 2016, 22 women held seats in the Legislature.
Only Wyoming will have a smaller percentage of female legislators in 2017 (10, or about 11 percent), according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Nationwide, nearly a quarter of legislators are women. Since 1971, the number of women serving in state legislatures has more than quintupled, although the number has stayed fairly steady in the past several election cycles.
Both Republican and Democratic women who are leaders maintain that their presence makes a positive difference in approaches to policy.
“Women bring a certain dynamic to the process,” said Sen. AJ Griffin, R-Guthrie, who was first elected in 2012. “We do conduct business differently. We’re more likely to reach across the aisle. And we bring representation of over half our state.”
She and other female lawmakers will form a women’s caucus in the upcoming legislative session. The women will meet regularly, help co-author each other’s bills and work on key issues such as domestic violence, equal pay, substance abuse and women’s incarceration.
The women’s caucus will be bipartisan and include House and Senate members.
“It will give us a stronger voice. If we don’t have the percentages, at least we can bind together as a women’s caucus and really push some of those issues,” said Rep. Leslie Osborn, R-Mustang.
Female lawmakers tend to focus on issues such as education, substance abuse, supporting families and preventing child abuse, leaders say. All are areas in which Oklahoma struggles.
Hats in the Ring
The 2016 election cycle drew more candidates than any other in the past decade, including 77 female candidates for the House and Senate. Fifty-six advanced to the general election, but many faced uphill battles unrelated to gender: running against an incumbent, or being a Democrat in one of the reddest states.
The new class of legislators includes 13 female representatives; eight are incumbents. Newcomers are Meloyde Blancett of Tulsa, Rhonda Baker of Yukon, Carol Bush of Tulsa, Tammy West of Bethany and Tess Teague of Choctaw.
Six state senators are women. All but one — Republican Julie Daniels of Bartlesville — are incumbents.
Even though there will be fewer women overall, there will be women in leadership positions in the House and Senate. For House Republicans, Rep. Elise Hall, R-Bethany, will serve as vice caucus chairwoman and Rep. Katie Henke, R-Tulsa, will be caucus secretary. The House speaker, pro tempore and caucus chairman will be men.
The Senate GOP leadership roster includes Sen. Kim David, R-Porter, as chair of the Senate appropriations committee, the first woman to be named to that position, and Sen. Stephanie Bice, R-Oklahoma City, as assistant majority floor leader. The Senate pro tempore, floor leader and eight other announced GOP leaders will be men.
Democrats will select and announce their leadership positions within the next few weeks.
The presence of women legislative leaders, along with Oklahoma being one of just five states to elect a female governor, shows voters are willing to elect women — if they will run.
Studies show women are far less likely to run for office than men.
“Women are not recruited. Women are less likely to be tapped and cultivated and pushed forward. And women are much more likely to not think they are qualified,” said Cindy Rosenthal, former mayor of Norman and a political science and women’s studies professor at the University of Oklahoma.
Those circumstances, in general, create big barriers to getting women into office.
In 2018, when statewide elections are held, women’s prospects for winning key offices are uncertain. Gov. Mary Fallin, for example, is in her last term. The only names being floated so far as candidates for governor are men.
Griffin said she and other women legislators work to plant the seed early, even with young, school-aged girls.
“We’ve got to start raising up girls to consider a life of politics,” Griffin said.
President and Congress
In the presidency, an election poised to deliver an enormous milestone to women instead resulted in disappointment among some voters, especially Democrats and young adults.
Hillary Clinton supporters created the “Pantsuit Nation” movement and the corresponding hashtag, and voters plastered the grave of woman’s suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony with “I Voted” stickers, which was streamed live on Facebook on Election Day.
“There was certainly a sentiment of some, clearly not all, women that this was going to be an historic moment,” said Rosenthal. “This was something many have waited a lifetime to see happen.”
The day after the election, Rosenthal had students in her office, sobbing and hugely disappointed in the outcome, she said.
Despite pre-election women’s empowerment sentiment, exit polls showed that while Clinton won the support of a majority of women voters, more white women voted for Donald Trump. Support for Trump was even stronger among white women without a college degree.
Keith Gaddie, chair of the University of Oklahoma political science department, predicted Clinton would be just as unpopular in Oklahoma as Barack Obama had been.
“We never imagined that gender could be more powerful than race in this country, but it is … I think it is part of the cultural pushback against a strong woman in a place that’s not usually occupied by women, even though we’ve elected a female governor,” Gaddie said.
The results indicate there were issues deeper than gender. With Clinton, voters found tangible and real reasons to dislike her, he said.
Trump’s campaign was pockmarked by a 2005 video of him describing using his celebrity status to grope women and a slew of women accusing him of sexual assault.
His win, some female leaders say, is voters’ stamp of approval or indifference to sexist behavior.
Democrat Courtney Blau, a health-care attorney, said Trump’s support among women was discouraging.
“This election took us a step back in terms of our equality and our rights,” she said. “This election was an affirmation of oppression of women, and objectification of women.”
Based on campaign promises, some political analysts and women are speculating that Trump’s policies as president will limit women’s access to abortion and birth control. Trump has said he’ll nominate pro-life Supreme Court justices in an attempt to overturn Roe v. Wade. He also vowed to repeal Obamacare, which requires insurers to provide contraceptives for free. Recently, he walked back that promise, saying he would amend the law instead.
Trump also announced plans to provide mothers six weeks of paid maternity leave and allow working parents who earn less than $250,000 a year to deduct child-care expenses from their income taxes — proposals that could benefit many women.
In the aftermath of the election, women’s rights supporters also were disappointed in congressional and state governors’ elections. The number of women in Congress will remain the same, at 104, or 19 percent, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. The number of women governors will drop by one, to five. In Oklahoma, both U.S. senators and all five U.S representatives are men.
But women’s advocates can point to one historic and encouraging fact: For the first time ever, a woman won the nation’s popular vote in the race for president. Nancy Duff Campbell, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C., noted the significance of her achievement and said it is a harbinger.
“We are fortified by the knowledge that for the first time in history tens of millions of Americans could, and did, vote for a woman presidential candidate from a major political party, that girls and boys could see a powerful woman have a real chance of becoming president, and that because of this breakthrough, we will see a woman occupy the highest office in the land one day,” she said in a written statement.
Reporter Warren Vieth contributed to this story.
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that produces in-depth and investigative content on public-policy issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to oklahomawatch.org.