Women's Legislative Caucuses
By Katie Ziegler | Vol . 21, No. 39 / October 2013
Did you know?
- Women’s caucuses exist in 23 state legislatures.
- Of the country’s 7,383 state legislators, about 24 percent, or 1,783, are women.
- In the District of Columbia and the U.S. territories and commonwealths, women hold 17 percent of the 189 legislative seats.
The nation’s first women’s legislative caucus, the Women Legislators of Maryland, was founded in 1972 to promote public policy that improves women’s lives and to increase the number of women in public office. Today, bipartisan women’s caucuses are active in at least 23 states. Some meet weekly and work to support specific bills, while others focus more on networking. All provide female lawmakers opportunities for mentoring, teamwork, professional development and information sharing in the nation’s statehouses, where men outnumber women roughly four to one.
“The formation of our women’s caucus led to great friendships and collegiality among the women of both chambers and on both sides of the aisle,” says Wyoming Representative Rosie Berger (R). “We have come together to create opportunities for women and girls in Wyoming to learn about and join the political process.”
Caucuses can come and go over time, depending on the number of women in the legislature, the political climate, departures of caucus leadership and funding availability. Their levels of activity, and the activities themselves, vary widely. Less formal caucuses may gather only once or twice during the session for a meal and networking. More structured ones meet regularly, elect officers and collect dues. Some caucuses focus on leadership development for women in the legislature and around the state. Others set legislative priorities, host expert speakers and workshops addressing those issues, and back bills that support them.
The Massachusetts Caucus of Women Legislators, for example, chose gender pay equity as its priority issue for the 2013-2014 legislative session and held a series of educational events for legislators and staff that included ideas for bills.
Some caucuses draft legislation. The Hawaii Women’s Legislative Caucus sponsors a package of bills each session. One of this year’s bills calls for establishments that serve liquor to post warnings about the risk of birth defects caused by alcohol, and another bill requires judges to consider domestic violence histories when setting spousal support amounts. The Hawaii caucus’s 2013 package is dedicated to the Hawaii Girls Court on Oahu, which offers programs targeted at juvenile female offenders.
Each caucus develops its own signature programs.
- The Georgia Women’s Caucus, which meets weekly during the session, hosts a biannual planning retreat. The caucus receives staff support from a University of Georgia intern during the session.
- The Illinois Conference of Women Legislators does not take policy positions, but focuses on educating and informing members on issues. Ten bipartisan standing committees organize its activities. The organization offers scholarships to women who had to leave college due to family or economic concerns. Members also mentor Illinois Girl Scouts.
- The Louisiana Legislative Women’s Caucus grants yearly awards and scholarships to exemplary women and girls. Caucus members have recorded a series of television public service announcements that encourage women to run for office, urge girls to pursue math and science careers, honor female veterans and advocate youth nonviolence. This year, the caucus sponsored a free webinar about financial aid for higher education.
- The Maryland caucus chooses bills to support each session and keeps members abreast of their status. This year’s list included health, education, criminal justice and economic issues. The caucus recently commemorated the centennial of the Women’s Suffrage Parade of 1913 in Washington, D.C., with a reenactment of the march that helped win ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920.
- The Wyoming Women’s Legislative Caucus hosts Leap Into Leadership each year. Alumnae have gone on to win election to state and local office.
Research shows that, compared to male legislators, female legislators from both parties give greater support to legislation intended to benefit women, children and families, and that women may be more likely to get legislation passed on these issues when they work together. Female lawmakers are more likely than men to approach public policy holistically and to address the root causes of a problem. Another study has shown that, in some legislatures, the presence of a women’s caucus leads to the appointment of more women to committee chair positions.
The most successful caucuses tend to avoid taking up issues that are politically divisive, instead focusing on agendas that have bipartisan support, say those involved. Caucus veterans also recommend that the group be ethnically diverse, that leadership include women from both parties and chambers, and that decisions be made by consensus rather than by majority rule. Finally, they suggest caucus meetings be held regularly, press releases about caucus activities highlight bipartisan collaboration, members receive leadership training, and members reach out to women in the community.