States of Feminist Resistance: Women Legislators Make A Difference

A revolution is unfolding in many state legislatures.

When the 2018 elections marked another “Year of the Woman,” it wasn’t just at the federal level. Women comprised 33 percent of candidates in state legislative races—an influx that, relative to 2016, constituted the largest percentage increase among women state legislative candidates in two decades.

And women won.

More than 50 percent of women competing in the general election triumphed, including nearly 30 percent of non-incumbent candidates. Their victories raised the proportion of women in state legislatures by 3 percentage points, ending nearly a decade of stalled progress.

Between 2010 and 2018, women’s representation in state legislatures barely moved, eventually inching up from 24.5 to 25.4 percent.

But by 2019, women had garnered 28.9 percent of seats, and one in 14 current state legislators is a woman of color.

The boost is concentrated among Democrats: Following the 2018 elections, Democratic women gained more than 300 state legislative seats, to comprise 42 percent of all Democratic state legislators—while Republican women lost more than 40 seats, to comprise just 17 percent of all GOP state legislators.

The Center for American Women and Politics asserts that no single reason explains why women ran in 2018—but the negative emotions that Donald Trump’s 2016 victory spurred in progressive women obviously had an influence.

CAWP scholar Kelly Dittmar notes that Democratic women candidates expressed feelings of “urgency, anger and threat.”

And they have quickly turned the state legislatures into sites of feminist resistance. Under their leadership, states have repealed targeted regulations of abortion providers (TRAP laws) and revived the drive for the Equal Rights Amendment.

Take Nevada. Thanks to the “Year of the Woman,” Nevada became the first majority-female legislature in the U.S., with 52 percent women (47 percent in the House and 54 percent in the Senate). Two abortion rights bills  quickly passed: SB 94 allocates $6 million for family planning; SB 179, the Trust Nevada Women Act, decriminalizes supplying women with abortion medication without a doctor’s advice and removes two restrictions on abortions.

Upon signing these bills into law, Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) recognized a diverse, all-women leadership team: Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, Assembly Majority Leader Teresa Benitez-Thompson and state Sens. Yvanna Cancela (co-majority whip) and Julia Ratti (assistant majority leader).

Of course, Nevada women legislators were transforming policies before 2018. Thanks to their leadership, in March 2017 Nevada became the 36th of the 38 states needed to ratify the ERA. State Sen. Pat Spearman—a black woman and the first open lesbian to serve in the state legislature—saw her ratification bill fail in 2015. When Democrats gained control in Nevada after the 2016 elections, Spearman’s ERA initiative finally passed.

Illinois followed, ratifying the ERA in May 2018. Heading the state Senate was Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, who had served back in the early 1980s when Illinois tried and failed to ratify the amendment.

Then the Blue Wave came to Virginia. In 2017, Democrats, led by women, picked up seats, and in 2019, Democrats won control of both state houses. Women won 25 percent of House seats and 27 percent of Senate seats.

As in Nevada and Illinois, a few new women legislators made all the difference. Bills to ratify the ERA—though passed by the state Senate—had suffered defeat in the House of Delegates as recently as 2018 and 2019, but Virginia became the 38th state to ratify in January 2020.

That same month the Virginia legislature voted to repeal a TRAP law designed to make clinics harder to operate. It also removed abortion restrictions that required women to receive ultrasounds and wait 24 hours before having the procedure.

Virginia Del. Hala Ayala, first elected in 2017 and reelected in 2019, reflected on the significance of women’s increased presence in the state legislature.

“When you have more women at the table, women’s is- sues come to the forefront,” she told Ms. “This year, our General Assembly has prioritized issues that are going to uplift Virginia women.”

She also recognized an all-women leadership team to rival that in Nevada: House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, House Majority Leader Charniele Herring and President Pro Tempore of the Senate Louise Lucas.

This piece is excerpted from the Spring 2020 issue of Ms.

Become a Ms. member to read the rest—and get even more of our feminist reporting and analysis delivered to your door, or to your mobile device, each time we release a new issue!

The contributions of Democratic women state legislators reverberate beyond Nevada, Illinois and Virginia. The National Women’s Law Center found that in 2019 Democratic women across the country were more likely than Democratic men and GOP men and women to introduce and enact bills on child care, paid sick leave, sexual harassment and the minimum wage. To wit, women Democrats in Virginia passed a bill including domestic workers under state minimum wage protections, and women Democrats in Maryland enacted tax credits for child and dependent care and extended sexual harassment protections to more categories of workers. Overall, the NWLC found that Democratic women lawmakers enjoy the highest success rate, enacting more initiatives relative to Democratic men and to all Republicans.

These findings underscore what gender and politics scholars have long known.

First, when it comes to running for office, women are more motivated by communal goals than political power. Negative emotions kindled the flame in 2018—but making a difference remains central to why women seek political office.

Second, women do politics backward and in high heels. CAWP describes a “performance premium” for women candidates: Relative to men, women are more experienced and have greater dedication to public service, a better grasp of the issues and better ability to collaborate, perform constituency service and bring federal funds to the district.

And women spur each other on. The NWLC further found that the more women in the state legislature, the more bills introduced and enacted by the legislature overall.

With a record number of Democratic women in state legislative office—who, in their aggregate, out-perform men when it comes to introducing and enacting bills—the feminist agenda is moving forward. None of the viable women candidates seeking the 2020 Democratic nomination for president survived past Super Tuesday, but feminists can look to the down-ballot races and witness the power of women at the state level.


Jennifer M. Piscopo is professor of gender and politics at Royal Holloway University of London.