Sen. Patricia Torres Ray and Nekima Levy-Armstrong

Women in the Legislature: Stalled progress?

Sen. Patricia Torres Ray and Nekima Levy-Armstrong
Sen. Patricia Torres Ray and Nekima Levy-Armstrong at a Minnesota Women’s Press “Our Voice and Vote” event in 2018.

“The average woman is asked to run seven times before deciding to do it. If you make that first ‘ask’ when they’re 10 or 11, it plants the seed … and that’s going to build our pipeline.”
– Rep. Erin Murphy

It wasn’t a straight line, but women’s representation in the Minnesota Legislature was trending upward. In the 2005-06 Legislature, women held 63 of 201 seats, up from 55 in the previous biennium. The high-water mark was 70, reached in the 2007-08 and 2009-10 Legislatures.

But since then, things have plateaued. Sixty-nine women served in 2011-12, and 68 in each subsequent biennium. And this year Minnesota is seeing a high number of women leaving the Legislature. Of 22 legislators who opted not to seek re-election this fall, 10 are women. (An additional two are seeking a different office.) Eight are Democrats – five in the Senate, three in the House – in addition to one Republican woman each in the House and Senate.

What’s behind these trends?

Three leading women legislators offered theories as to why women retire from office or opt not to run in the first place – suggesting that better pay, a more family-friendly work schedule, and efforts to improve the civility of public discourse might help boost women’s representation.

Many women, as well as men, decline to run because of the $31,500 salary. On the ballot this year, along with all 201 legislative seats: a constitutional amendment giving an independent, bipartisan citizens’ council responsibility for setting legislator pay. Many expect this to lead to higher pay, since lawmakers are reluctant to raise their own salaries, fearing political backlash. The last raise came in 1999.

A big consideration particularly for women with kids is “the work-life balance,” says Deputy Minority Leader Rep. Erin Murphy, who plays a lead role in recruiting and mentoring DFL House candidates.

“It takes longer, and many ‘asks,’ to get a women to agree to run. There are women running now that I started talking to in 2011 – they finally agreed,” she says. “Women have to find the right timeframe.” One woman running this year, for example, waited until her kids were in college.

“I think we’ve made progress in making [legislative service] a little more family-friendly,” says Senate President Sandy Pappas. “When I started we often had late-night committee hearings and floor sessions.” While the Senate has moved toward more “normal” hours, House floor sessions usually begin later in the day and often go late into the night.

Along with pay and family concerns, Pappas and Murphy both pointed to heightened partisanship and growing coarseness of the political discourse, which can deter women from running in the first place, or frustrate them once in office.

“There’s the internal fighting within your [party] caucus to feel included and listened to,” says Pappas, “and then the partisan climate with the opposition. Women often don’t want to put up with it.”

And the old double standard still holds, she adds: “You have to be strong – but you can’t be the ‘b-word.'”

Transformative change

For years, considerable effort has gone toward increasing the number of women running for and elected to public office. Along with this, says Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, should come a comparably sophisticated focus on what happens once they get there.

“We’ve kind of neglected looking at the policy aspects of the work we do, and the reasons why we run in the first place – what excites us,” says Torres Ray.

For her part, “I don’t enjoy the transactional nature [of legislative service],” she says. “I don’t want to be the leader who can go to the table, get some of what I want, and get out.” Her sense is that like her, women generally are less likely to be satisfied with winning the transaction, but not making transformative change. “We want to be able to transform the system … we want to play the game, but we also want to redefine the game.”

Torres Ray, who immigrated to the United States from Colombia more than 25 years ago, stresses the importance of electing women of color to the Legislature.

“Our experiences relate to the experiences of a population that is growing in Minnesota – yet very few [officeholders] are able to bring those perspectives,” she says. “Some have a level of academic sophistication and awareness, but are not personally connected to those communities and the issues affecting them.

“That is not to criticize; it’s just the way it is,” she adds. “It’s important we bring to the table those who are connected, not just sensitive, to issues” such as racial disparities in the economy and criminal justice system – issues that generated discussion in the 2016 session.

Murphy makes a similar point on the importance of electing women.

“We have a different lived experience, and we bring that to bear in decision-making,” she says. “When I talk about access to contraception, women understand that it’s an argument about our earning ability and economic security. It’s no longer just a discussion about sex, birth control and abortion; it’s a pocketbook issue.”

And there is potential good news, despite the 2016 exodus of women. In 2017, says Murphy, there could be more women members in the Legislature than there are now. It is up to the voters: There are eight new DFL women running for the Senate, and 40 for the House.

Murphy hopes to keep that trend going well into the future. Using a technique she learned from Congressional candidate Angie Craig, when Murphy participates in parades (a campaign season staple), she works the sidelines, asking girls if they’ve thought about running for office someday.

“The average woman is asked to run seven times before deciding to do it,” says Murphy. “If you make that first ‘ask’ when they’re 10 or 11, it plants the seed … and that’s going to build our pipeline.”

And when a critical mass of women come through that pipeline into the Legislature – say, in numbers representing women’s share of just over half the state’s population – transformative change may not be such a heavy lift.