Getting Women Elected is Just the First Step

April 27, 2018

What a difference a year makes.  In 2017, Virginia and New Jersey held statewide and state legislative elections, which were largely viewed as harbingers of what is to come in the 2018 congressional midterm elections.  At that time, Virginia ranked 38th for women’s representation in the states.  In November 2017, twelve women candidates were newly elected as state delegates.  When the Virginia General Assembly convened for its annual session in January 2018, Virginia ranked 22nd in the country for women’s state legislative representation.

These gains by women are extraordinary and suggest a transformation of the Virginia legislature in many ways to make it more reflective of the Commonwealth’s changing population. At the same time, nearly all of the new women members began their service in the minority party; while the majority party advantage previously enjoyed by Republicans was significantly narrowed in the new session, Republicans would again hold a legislative majority in both the House of Delegates and Senate.

In an election year where there is the potential for women to make significant gains in representation across levels, the Virginia case reminds us that the election of women to office is but the first step of many in gaining clout and influence as decision makers. More specifically, the collective experience of freshman women delegates in the 2018 Virginia General Assembly laid bare both the opportunities and limitations of serving a first term in office.

The freshman class of the 2018 Virginia House of Delegates is a remarkable display of women’s presence, particularly for women Democrats. Of the nineteen delegates newly elected in 2017, twelve are women – eleven of whom are Democrats.  Even more notable is the fact that nine of these women Democrats were challengers who defeated Republican incumbents, all of whom are men.  The election of so many Democratic women significantly increased their presence in their party’s caucus, as they now account for nearly half (47 percent) of Democratic members of the House of Delegates.

Gains by Republican women were much more modest, with only one new Republican woman winning election.  And, while Republicans retained their majority party status, women in the party account for only ten percent of Republican members of the House of Delegates. Put another way, Democratic women delegates have the numbers but not majority party status whereas Republican women delegates have the majority party status, but not the numbers.

And therein lies the challenge for many women serving in the Virginia General Assembly because the institutional rules of the game – party majority status and seniority – determine who holds influence.  In the General Assembly, the Speaker of the House of Delegates wields significant authority over the chamber and its members, including the ability to make committee appointments for all delegates and assign all bills to committees (with Republican majorities).  More than half of the incoming freshmen were relegated to the Science and Technology Committee, a committee with a light workload and limited jurisdiction.  And, unlike in Congress where respective party leadership assigns its own members to Committees and rewards successful challengers who unseat incumbents with prestigious committee assignments, those freshman Democratic women did not enjoy a similar reward from the Republican Speaker as only one of them was assigned to the House Finance Committee. (The lone Republican woman freshman was assigned to House Finance.)  And, regardless of party, freshmen legislators are the least senior members of committees and do not occupy positions as committee or subcommittee chairs, which further limits their ability to exercise clout over fellow members.

Democratic women (and men) delegates also saw most of their sponsored bills killed in Republican dominated committees, which greatly limited their ability to advance preferred issues and represent constituent preferences with sponsored legislation.  To be sure, women Democratic delegates offered a wide range of bills during the legislative session, including constituent-focused bills as well as bills of particular interest to many women such as paid family and medical leave,  protections against sexual harassment, and, health insurance coverage of contraceptives.  Each of these bills, however, was killed in their respective committees.  Earlier this month the House of Delegates passed a budget bill that included funds for Medicaid expansion, however the state Senate has not yet acted on the House version of the budget bill that will need to be resolved ahead of the 30 June fiscal year deadline.

Even as their legislative agenda stalled, the increased presence of women delegates has led to changes within the traditionally male-dominated Virginia General Assembly. At the start of the session, Speaker Cox announced the provision of new family leave policies for Delegates’ staff.  The House also passed a requirement that all members and staff participate in a training program to combat sexual harassment.  Two freshman delegates, Jennifer Carroll Foy and Kathy Tran, each of whom have young children, created a “parent’s caucus” for all interested members to crowd-source tips and advice for balancing parental and professional responsibilities when the legislature is in session.  And, their work to make the Assembly more family friendly may have a more permanent impact, as the plans for the new General Assembly building presently under construction now include accommodations for nursing rooms and restrooms with baby changing tables.

Whether women delegates in the Virginia General Assembly can continue to facilitate change within the institution and advance legislation ultimately resides with the willingness of their constituents to return them to office and, at least for Democratic delegates, whether their party retakes the majority in future elections. Before then, the experiences of these newly elected women officeholders provide important context with which we might contemplate women’s electoral success across the U.S. this year. While much of the attention has been on the record numbers of women running and their potential to win in November, winning is just the first step toward increasing women’s political power and influence. The next step for successful women candidates will be navigating often rigid political institutions and overcoming obstacles that constrain their potential for influence.

That means that, for women in Virginia and nationwide, the work does not end on Election Day. But, thankfully, the victories don’t end there either.

Rosalyn Cooperman is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, VA.