If you caught news coverage of the women’s marches held across the nation Jan. 21, you would believe females are integral to the nation’s political conversation. While the marches might be a launching pad for elected office, females have a long way to go to have real political clout – particularly in Indiana.
The state’s record on electing women is poor, and Hoosiers lose out for their lack of representation.
Statistics compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures find that females hold almost 25 percent of the 7,383 seats in state legislative chambers.
It’s a record high, but it falls far short of the 50.8 percent share women represent in the U.S. population.
In Indiana, Statehouse representation is even worse. Twenty-two of the 100 Indiana House seats are held by females; seven of the 50 Senate seats, or 19 percent overall. Indiana’s 11-member congressional delegation includes only U.S. Reps. Susan Brooks and Jackie Walorski. Hoosiers have never elected a female governor or U.S. senator or seen a female elected to lead the Indiana House or Senate.
Other states fare much better. Women lead the state senate or house in Iowa, Colorado, Maine, Oregon, Tennessee, Vermont, Kansas, Minnesota and Rhode Island. In Nevada, 40 percent of legislators are women. That’s on par with parliamentary bodies in Finland, Norway and Sweden.
The lack of female voices in Indiana political leadership is felt with the legislative issues raised.
The Statehouse has no shortage of lawmakers eager to file business-related bills, but legislation supporting families and children or addressing domestic violence seems harder to come by.
Veteran lawmaker Vaneta Becker, R-Evansville, authored numerous health and education bills this year, including one requiring retailers to open their private restrooms to the public if a customer meets certain medical conditions. Rep. Sharon Negele, R-Indianapolis, has a bill requiring the state to develop a strategic plan to prevent cervical cancer. Not surprisingly, 18 female House members have signed on as co-sponsors; Sen. Jean Leising is the bill’s Senate sponsor.
At the federal level, women’s voices matter, as well. In 2015, Brooks and Walorski joined other female lawmakers in blocking legislation that would have banned abortion after 20 weeks even in cases involving rape and incest.
Indiana can elect more women if more women will run.
Anne Hathaway, executive director of the Lugar Series, a political leadership development program for Indiana Republican women, said it’s more difficult to recruit women as candidates because they tend to think more about the effect it will have on "family, their marriage, their career and the balance of it all."
"So, after watching the political process over the last few years and observing the pain and wear and tear it has had on candidates and their families, women are opting to become involved in other ways," she wrote in an email. They instead are serving in appointed roles in agencies, on boards and commissions and elsewhere.
It’s also a fact that politics continues to be a "boy’s club."
"Female candidates struggle with point of entry into the process and with fundraising. Contributions from women to support other women lag," she wrote. "Women can sometimes be the worst enemy of other women. I tend to believe that might be driven by jealousy."
Still, Hathaway said she believes we will see more female candidates in the next few years.
"Women as a whole are feeling marginalized – it’s not just the women who participated in the Women’s March nor those that have joined the group Women4Change. It is women who seek to learn more about issues and advocacy through groups like The Policy Circle. Women are doing what they do best – they are doing their homework, gathering information, assessing how and where to engage."
Northeast Indiana has a wealth of talented women serving at the local level – Mayor Suzanne Handshoe of Kendallville, Allen County Councilwoman Sharon Tucker and Allen County Assessor Stacey O’Day, to name just a few. All of Indiana could benefit if they and other women would step up to help make the General Assembly look more like the rest of the state.