Record number of women heading to Harrisburg

State Rep. Margo L.Davidson

By John Finnerty

HARRISBURG — When state lawmakers return to the Capitol on Tuesday, a record number of women will be among them – 51 in the state House and 12 in the Senate.

Even so, there will be three male lawmakers for every woman.

Among the dozen women in the state Senate, there are six Democrats and six Republicans. Among the 51 women in the state House, there are 29 Democrats and 22 Republicans.

“When I entered the House there were only about eight women in our caucus” of House Democrats, said state Rep. Margo Davidson, D-Delaware County. Davidson took office in 2011. “We’ve worked incredibly hard to change that.”

More than half of the 40 lawmakers who joined the Democratic Caucus in the state House since 2015 are women.

Despite the gains, Pennsylvania’s General Assembly remains one of the most male-dominated state legislatures in the country.

Women hold 25 percent of the 253 seats in the state General Assembly.

Only 16 states have a smaller share of their General Assembly represented by women, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Among neighboring states, only in Delaware and West Virginia do women represent a smaller share of the legislature than in Pennsylvania, according to an analysis by the Rutgers center.

In West Virginia, women hold 14 percent of seats in the state Legislature, the lowest share in the country. Nevada is the only state in the country where women comprise more than half the state lawmakers.

“Any time you can bring in more diverse perspectives, it’s good,” said Jill Greene, executive director of the League of Women Voters in Pennsylvania. “But we have a long way to go.”

Greene said the 2016 presidential election, in which Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, seemed to inspire more women to want to run for office.

“A lot of women started to focus on the fact that women aren’t being heard,” she said.

Twenty-three of the women in the state Legislature were just elected in November, though that number includes two Republican state senators who served in the state House last session.

Research shows that female lawmakers are more likely to look for compromise, and they are more likely to seek to work with lawmakers of other parties, said Dana Brown, executive director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University in Pittsburgh.

However, research also suggests that the female representation in a legislature makes a discernable difference in public policy when it gets to or above 30 percent, she said.

“We are falling short of that tipping point,” Brown said.

Women hold more than 30 percent of the seats in the legislatures in 23 states, among them, neighboring states of Maryland, New Jersey and New York.

Not only does Pennsylvania fall short of that benchmark, there are other factors which suggest that newly-elected female lawmakers may struggle to substantially influence the agenda at the Capitol, she said.

Another issue is that in several cases, Democratic women won election by defeating moderate Republican male lawmakers.

Republicans who remain in office and who still hold the majority may be less inclined to embrace the ideas pushed by newly-elected Democrats.

The only thing that would change that is if voters start to clamor for change, Brown said.