Women share their advice and insight on leading legislative bodies.
By Katie Fischer Ziegler
The role of women in politics is making headlines this summer, but even though women make up a majority of the U.S. population, their representation in state legislatures doesn’t reflect it.
Only 24.5 percent of state legislators today are women, though the number of women serving varies widely by state. There are even fewer women—about 16 percent—in the top 350 legislative leadership positions.
Well aware of their limited numbers, many female leaders stress the immeasurable value of having strong role models for women who aspire to positions of influence.
“Over the years, I have felt that we should want the best candidate for a job, whether that’s a woman or man,” says Iowa Representative Linda Upmeyer (R), the state’s first female speaker. That changed when she started getting letters from moms who talked about how their daughters responded when they saw her in the news. “It occurred to me that if little girls don’t see women in some of these positions, they will never hold a vision in their minds of women doing those jobs,” she says. “They won’t see themselves in those positions.”
Once in positions of power, women have to engage others, create unity and earn respect, just like their male counterparts. How they achieve those goals may either reflect their gender or simply their varied personalities.
Good leaders know that assembling strong decision-making teams requires “building relationships and working with people in difficult times,” says Upmeyer, who was a nurse practitioner before her election to the House. But teamwork is also a balancing act, says Oregon Senate President Pro Tem Diane Rosenbaum (D). An effective team is one “where people are strong individuals but where they also feel they can accomplish more as a group than any one person can alone,” she says.
For Wyoming Representative Rosie Berger (R), the majority floor leader, fostering an environment where “smart, able people are empow-ered to bring their very best ideas to the table.” is a priority.
Female Legislative Leaders By the Numbers | 2016
Total female leaders in 50 states
Percentage of leaders who are women
Speakers of the House
Speakers Pro Tem
House Majority Leaders
House Minority Leaders
Senate Presidents Pro Tem
Senate Majority Leaders
Senate Minority Leaders
Female leaders in U.S. territories
Percentage of female legislators who are leaders
(58 leaders out of 1,809 women)
Percentage of male legislators who are leaders
(292 leaders out of 5,574 men)
Many women seek the opinions and advice of others, including team members. “I don’t determine a course of action until I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from a broad array of people,” says Minnesota House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin (R). And that requires listening.
Oregon Representative Jennifer Williamson (D), the House majority leader, says women leaders she’s worked with have been more likely to listen than some of her male counterparts. “They have more of a tendency to collaborate,” she says. “There is no question that a decision will be made, but women may take in more input from team members.”
Oregon’s Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick (D) agrees. A positive, safe team environment is one where people listen. “I want to re-ally be able to listen very carefully to people who come from places that are quite different from where I come from,” she says.
Former New Hampshire House Speaker Terie Norelli (D) would look for ways to personally connect with members when they were in session. “I’d send them a little note on the floor. I’d send flowers if somebody was in the hospital. I think sometimes those care and feeding styles are more common for women than for men.”
It never hurts to play a supportive role. “I believe in helping other members achieve their goals, whether that’s being elected, passing legislation, or getting a specific policy matter out there for conversation,” says Florida House Majority Leader Dana Young (R). “I earn re-spect from my members by working for them. And I have never asked someone to do something that I was not willing to do myself.”
Is There a Female Factor?
Good female leaders possess many of the same skills as their male counterparts, though women tend to prefer tackling issues by using a team approach built on trust and consensus.
“It is important for women in Oregon to see their women leaders take up issues that matter to them,” Williamson says. So, female mem-bers of the House Democratic Caucus teamed up to publicize a women’s economic agenda during the 2014 election. Their goal was to discuss caucus priorities in terms of how they affected women across the state.
“Women in low-wage jobs—to hear their situation held up as something we need to address, that doesn’t happen often,” Williamson says.
The Wyoming House currently is the country’s only chamber with women in both leadership roles—Berger, the majority leader and Rep-resentative Mary Throne (D), the minority leader.
Their friendship—built on long-established trust and respect, despite their different philosophies and views on issues—benefits the whole Legislature, Throne says. The two have even pledged to take no action that would damage the other’s leadership role.
“The floor has run smoother,” Berger says, during her tenure with Throne. Perhaps that’s because they know each other so well, says Throne, that they “don’t have to talk to each other that much.”
All the female leaders stressed the importance of having both women and men in leadership roles, and reported collegial and productive relationships with the men in their chambers.
Occasionally, though, men’s expectations will be challenged. “There were times people thought I wouldn’t be as tough as I was,” Norel-li says. “Sometimes that caught people off guard.” A woman may have a softer style, she says, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll be easy to push around.
Young cautions women aspiring to leadership against defining themselves by their gender. “We should just be the best that we can be, and always realize that we can improve,” she says. “Hopefully, that will result in really fantastic leadership for our state.”
Burdick also avoids making generalizations about gender. “Whether you are a man or a woman,” she says, “you are not the star of the show. You are the leader of the team.”
The Workload Doesn’t Lessen
Upmeyer is in the unique position of occupying the same leadership role as her late father, Delwyn Stromer, who was Iowa’s House speaker in the early 1980s. “Oftentimes,” she says, “we can look at people who had great opportunities and think, ‘Wow, they were really lucky.’ But I remember growing up, my dad would always remind me that the harder you worked, the luckier you got. That’s proven true all across my career. Hard work pays off.”
Still, Upmeyer was “a little surprised” by the amount of administrative work the speaker was responsible for. The increased workload was “a new thing” for Wyoming’s Berger as well. “As you go up the ladder in leadership, it seems that you really become more like a CEO of a company,” Berger says.
For Minnesota’s Peppin, moving into leadership was an eye-opener because it meant “dealing with member relations—getting to know members in a deeper sense and helping them work through disagreements on different issues.”
It takes a lot of patience. “Building relationships with other members, with lobbyists, with constituents, doesn’t happen overnight,” Pep-pin says. “It may take a few sessions.”
In Oregon, Burdick was first elected when the Democrats were in the minority. “I was grateful that I came in under those circumstances,” she says. “When you come in as a member of the minority, if you don’t learn how to relate with people, talk to people, get people on your side and really try to find common ground with people who are different from you, you don’t get anywhere,” she says.
“If you come in with the majority and someone hands you a gavel, you can make the mistake of thinking that you’re quite a skilled leg-islator. And it may not be true, because those skills are sometimes developed more deeply when you don’t have the gavel,” Burdick says.
The Importance of Your Word
Young’s grandfather, Randolph Hodges, was president of the Florida Senate in the 1960s, and she has always remembered his key piece of advice: “Be very, very careful about giving your word. Once you give your word, that is your bond, and you can never break it.” Un-fortunately, she adds, not everyone in the legislative arena behaves that way.
“Being able to discern when an individual is being dishonest, and dealing with that, is important,” Young says. “You’ve got to know who you can rely on. If someone is dishonest, there has to be a consequence. Being strong enough to impose those consequences is a very important skill for any legislator.”
Women who want to advance into leadership roles need a healthy dose of self-confidence, Upmeyer says. “One of the things that al-ways stands out to me is that men get up in the morning and look in the mirror and whatever they want to be, they can see it. Women look in the mirror and are thinking about what needs to get done in the day. Women have to be asked to run for office or for leadership.”
That hesitation among women is pervasive and troubling, says Peppin, who’s encountered it when she talks to potential candidates for the Minnesota Legislature. “Women will be concerned about issues, but they will try to find other people to run. Women need to think, Maybe I’m the person that is needed. Maybe it is me that can make the biggest difference.”
Moving into leadership roles also depends on the leaders who are already there, New Hampshire’s Norelli says. “The best opportunities come for women when there are people in leadership, whether they’re women or men, who are open to helping to advance women. So the best thing is to make sure you’re supporting a leader, the No. 1 leader, who is not just open to diversity, but actually committed to diversity.”
Making a Difference
“I think women tend to bring a level of passion to politics that we don’t always see from men,” Berger says. “Particularly when it comes to issues that are personal to them, or that they have experienced firsthand.” She and Throne are encouraged by the enthusiasm they’ve seen in women who have participated in Wyoming’s Leap into Leadership, a program that familiarizes women with all the state and local leadership opportunities available. The group’s training programs help strengthen and develop the skills necessary to engage in leader-ship at all levels.
Williamson encourages women to let their experiences shape their work. “Women run for office because they have a set of values that drives them, that are often different from men. Women need to be empowered to share this. We don’t have to try to fit our stories in a tradi-tional box in order to be good policymakers.”
No one says it’s easy. “These positions are challenging, no doubt,” says Rosenbaum of Oregon. “People make huge sacrifices in order to run in the first place, in order to stay in office, to play these leadership roles.”
But it is “overwhelmingly worth it,” she says, “particularly when you see progress being made to affect the lives of people. I would en-courage other women to consider this a part of what they want to do.”
The Mountain Ahead
The numbers of women in legislatures, in leadership and in higher office are growing—but slowly. Norelli is concerned that while New Hampshire has a female governor, two female senators and a female congresswoman, there are no women among the current legislative leaders or executive councilors.
“It is still something we have to be very conscious of and actively recruit women to run,” she says. “I want to continue to see more women in the legislature, because from there come the leaders, and from there very often come the candidates for higher up the ballot.”
Will female state legislators finally surpass the 25 percent mark after this year’s election? NCSL will be watching, and counting, in No-vember.
Katie Fischer Ziegler is NCSL’s program manager for the Women’s Legislative Network.