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In the US South, Just 1 in 5 State Lawmakers Are Women

A record number of women were elected to statehouses last year. But in the Southeast, representation is lagging.

Democratic state Sen. Margie Bright Matthews (L) and Republican state Sen. Sandy Senn react to supporters after the Senate passed a ban on abortion after six weeks of pregnancy at the South Carolina Statehouse on May 23, 2023, in Columbia, South Carolina. A bi-partisan group of five women led a filibuster that failed to block the legislation.

London Lamar rose from her chair in the Tennessee Senate last spring, stomach churning with anxiety as she prepared to address the sea of men sitting at creaky wooden desks around her. She wore a hot pink dress as a nod to the health needs of women, including the very few of them elected to this chamber, none of whom were, like her, obviously pregnant. She set her hands onto her growing belly.

The Senate clerk, a man, called out an amendment Lamar had filed. The Senate speaker, also a man, opened the floor for her to speak. The bill’s sponsor, another man, stood near her as she grasped a microphone to discuss the matter at hand: a tweak to the state’s near-total ban on abortion access.

Lamar glanced around at her fellow senators, three quarters of them men. The imbalance was even more stark in the state’s House of Representatives, where almost 9 in 10 members were men. And Tennessee is no anomaly. Across much of the Southeast, state legislatures are more than 80 percent male.

On this day, the Tennessee Senate was poised to take a final vote on a bill that would allow abortions to prevent a patient’s death or “serious risk of the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function.” Lamar stood to pitch a broader health exception.

A Democrat in the substantial minority, she could have appealed to her Republican women colleagues. Although they oppose abortion, they bring to the debate their personal knowledge of their bodies and experiences. But there were only three of them in the 33-member Senate. Instead, Lamar turned to the two dozen Republican men.

She reminded them that four years earlier, she was 32 weeks pregnant and serving in the House when her blood pressure suddenly spiked. Her placenta ruptured. Her son died in utero, and she faced a terrifying risk of a stroke. “It’s personally one of my biggest fears that this thing would happen again to me,” she told them. If it did, she feared the proposed law would prevent her doctor from protecting her health.

She implored the men to see her as a family member: “I’m telling you as your own colleague, as your niece, baby girl. I love you all. It is real, not only for me but for women all across the state.”

Scenes like this play out across the Southeast, even as the United States as a whole saw a record number of women elected to statehouses last year. Nationally, one-third of legislators are women, the most in history. In recent years, three states — Nevada, Arizona and Colorado — achieved parity.

But much of the Southeast lags far behind.

More than a century after the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote, women constitute fewer than 1 in 5 state legislators across much of the region: in Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, which studies women’s political participation. West Virginia has the lowest percentage of any state; less than 13 percent of its state lawmakers are women.

As Lamar spoke, 14 percent of Tennessee’s legislators were women. The Republicans, including two of the three GOP women in the Senate, swiftly rejected her amendment. She sank into her chair and pressed one palm over her heart, the other onto her belly, and practiced deep breathing exercises to help keep her blood pressure from soaring again.

Soon after, another Black woman in the chamber stood to speak. Holding the microphone, Sen. Charlane Oliver read prepared remarks calling for an exception in cases of rape. Then, she paused. She glanced to her right and bit her cheek. She cleared her throat.

Fighting tears, she began again: “I rise before this body as a sexual assault survivor.”

Sitting nearby, Lamar listened intently. She hadn’t known this about her fellow senator, yet Oliver felt compelled to share her trauma so publicly to try and sway the men around them. Tears welled in Lamar’s eyes as well. She passed her colleague a tissue.

Waiting to Run

Three decades have passed since a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee composed entirely of men grilled Anita Hill on live TV. Some of the men were dismissive, others downright hostile toward her testimony that Clarence Thomas, her former boss, had sexually harassed her. Millions watched it on live TV, and the Senate later confirmed Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The following year, voters elected a record number of women to Congress in what became known as the “The Year of the Woman.” Yet while Congress and many states have seen steady growth in numbers of women lawmakers over the years since then, much of the Southeast has stagnated or barely inched forward.

Tennessee has fewer women legislators than it had 20 years ago. Mississippi improved less than 3 percentage points since then; South Carolina fared only slightly better. Louisiana gained 6 percentage points, and Alabama gained 7.

This leaves large majorities of men controlling policy — including laws that most impact women — at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court is sending more power to statehouse doorsteps. Abortion, a key issue of the day, provides one window: A ProPublica analysis of comprehensive legislative data kept by the Reflective Democracy Campaign found that with few exceptions, the states with legislatures most dominated by men as of July have some of the nation’s strictest abortion bans.

Of the 10 states where men made up the biggest share of the legislatures, eight have strict abortion bans, and one outlaws it at around six weeks, before many people know they are pregnant. Five don’t allow exceptions for rape.

Seven of the 10 states have trigger laws in place that went into effect after Roe v. Wade was overturned. Those were adopted by legislatures years earlier. But the passage of time hasn’t always resulted in more women at the table. Four of the seven legislatures have more women lawmakers today, albeit barely, than when they passed their trigger laws. One state has remained stagnant. And two have fewer women lawmakers than when they passed their trigger laws.

These are all conservative states, so it doesn’t mean women who oppose abortion rights would have voted differently. But their voices were hardly at the table.

Men’s numeric dominance means they also control what issues get debated in the first place — and which do not. Women lawmakers have been more likely to champion issues like maternal health, children’s welfare and education, said Jean Sinzdak, associate director for the Center for American Women and Politics.

“Women’s presence is correlated with more conversation and more issues on the agenda that are related to women,” said Anna Mahoney, executive director of the Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences at Dartmouth College who wrote the book “Women Take Their Place in State Legislatures.”

Women haven’t run for legislative seats as often as men for many reasons: money, history, incumbency. But no factor plays a bigger role in the Deep South than its entrenched patriarchal culture and gender norms, women legislators and experts say.

“Traditional gender roles are more deeply enforced in Southern states,” Sinzdak said. “There’s more of a paternalistic streak that runs through them culturally.”

For instance, across party lines, virtually every Southern woman legislator ProPublica interviewed for this story said voters had asked her who would care for her family if she won. Carla Litrenta, a South Carolina attorney, was breastfeeding when she filed to campaign for a House race that she ultimately lost in 2022. Voters often looked at the Democrat’s two young children and asked how she would find time to serve in office. “It was ironic because the male candidates had full-time jobs,” she said, “and I was working part time.”

Statehouse gender disparities are more acute among Republicans. Across the country, two-thirds of women state legislators are Democrats. The 20 states with the lowest percentages of women in their legislatures are almost all led by Republicans.

Republican organizations “are not recruiting as many women to run and not giving as much support to run and be successful candidates,” Sinzdak said. “You reap what you sow.” South Carolina state Rep. Sylleste Davis, a Republican, agreed that the GOP needs to seek out more female candidates but added, “I don’t get the sense that they are.”

ProPublica reached out to Republican Party leaders in Southeastern states with the fewest women lawmakers asking why more weren’t running and what they could do to recruit more women candidates. Only one responded.

Scott Golden has worked as chair of Tennessee’s Republican Party for seven years. He said the party doesn’t target recruitment based on gender. During his tenure, including working for a prominent woman lawmaker, the barriers he has seen for women are primarily structural ones. The state’s legislature operates part time but requires substantial attendance during those months, and the capital of Nashville sits a four-hour drive from some districts. Both make legislative seats less appealing for women with young children who want to stick closer to home.

“Families with volleyball and softball and senior dances and homecoming parades, it’s difficult for anybody to do it — much less women to do it — during those years,” Golden said. Instead, he sees far more Republican women running for local elected offices where they can earn full-time salaries and travel less. “It’s time, money and proximity,” he said.

Indeed, like other women Republicans ProPublica interviewed, Davis did not seek a legislative seat until her children were older. Yet that decadeslong wait for women like her to run means that legislatures have fewer members who bring current firsthand experience with pregnancy, birth and child care — knowledge critical to crafting the policies that govern these issues.

Women also are also less likely to consider running unless they are asked. Rep. Anne Thayer, a Republican who hails from a particularly religious and conservative area of South Carolina, said she didn’t consider seeking public office until people approached her. Even then she demurred.

“I gave that good Southern Christian girl response in that I’ll pray about it,” she recalled. A small-business owner and mother, she had worked behind the political scenes but “never wanted to be the one driving the bus.”

Supporters kept asking, however, and today she and Davis are two of four women committee chairpeople out of 28 standing committees in a statehouse whose rolling grounds are adorned with a dozen monuments to White men. Only one specifically celebrates South Carolinian women — and it stands behind the domed building to honor Confederate women “reared by the men of their state,” as the inscription reads.

When Republican Katrina Shealy was elected to the South Carolina Senate a decade ago, she was the only woman in the chamber. A few years later, she made national news for rebuking a male colleague who had called women “a lesser cut of meat,” referencing the biblical story of God creating Eve from Adam’s rib.

Shealy made national news again last spring. By then, she had four women colleagues in the 46-member Senate. All five women united across racial and party lines to help thwart a near-total abortion ban. (A sixth woman, a Democrat, was elected to the Senate on January 2.)

Whatever their views on abortion, Shealy noted, women bring to the debate personal experience with menstrual cycles, pregnancy complications and motherhood. Male lawmakers around her simply don’t have that. “When they get up and talk about women’s issues,” she said, “it is just so frustrating because they don’t know what they’re talking about.”

After she joined her female colleagues to filibuster the strict abortion ban, they called themselves the Sister Senators and later received the JFK Profile in Courage Award. But they couldn’t defeat a bill that outlawed abortion after around six weeks of pregnancy.

Months earlier, South Carolina’s legislature — one of the most male-dominated in the country — had replaced the state Supreme Court’s lone woman justice with a man. (Two of the three nominees for the seat were women.) The justice had penned the lead opinion rejecting a similar six-week ban the previous month. The newly all-male court, now the country’s only state supreme court without a woman justice, promptly upheld the six-week ban.

The Backdrop of History

The case that overturned national abortion rights, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, originated in Mississippi, the state where White men in particular are most overrepresented in the legislature. They hold more than 60 percent of the seats even though they account for only 28 percent of the state’s population. That means every White man is represented more than two times over in the body, according to a ProPublica analysis of comprehensive legislative and census data tracked by the Reflective Democracy Campaign.

Women, however, are underrepresented by more than a factor of three. It’s about the same for Black women and White women.

Yet when it comes to the impact of abortion restrictions the legislature passed, Black women are disproportionately affected. They are four times more likely to die of pregnancy-related causes than White women. They also are more likely to experience unintended pregnancies. And in 2021, 80 percent of abortions reported in Mississippi were performed on them, the highest percentage of any state in the nation.

This is happening against history’s disturbing backdrop: centuries of White men controlling Black people’s reproduction. Enslaved people’s health once was only as important as the human property their bodies could produce. Black people had to birth the children of White people who raped them. They were forced to breastfeed White babies.

Michelle Colon, co-founder of a reproductive justice organization in Mississippi called SHERo, said this history has created a culture of devaluing Black women that persists today. Many state lawmakers “are the descendants of White men who basically controlled Black women’s bodies,” she said.

Across most of the Southeast, a region of former slave states, the more White men are overrepresented, the more Black women are underrepresented. This relationship doesn’t exist in other states that also have at least 5.6 percent Black women, the national average.

This imbalance is most pronounced in Mississippi, the state with the nation’s largest percentage of Black residents. “It’s not the year of the woman here,” said Tracy DeVries, executive director of the Women’s Foundation of Mississippi. “There’s no priority for women’s health. None. It’s just not important.”

Democratic Rep. Omeria Scott, a Black woman, has served in the Mississippi House of Representatives for three decades and sits on its public health committee, made up of 24 men and five women. The chair is a White man. As long as she could remember, it has always been a White man.

Scott also serves on the House’s Medicaid committee. Its chair also is a White man. He and the House speaker, another White man, stymied efforts in 2022 to extend Medicaid coverage, which pays for almost 60 percent of births in the state.

“White men handle those appropriations,” Scott said. “They handle the policy and the money in Mississippi.”

In 2022, House Speaker Philip Gunn spoke to The Associated Press after blocking a Senate-backed effort to extend Medicaid for the state’s poorest new birthing parents from the federally required two months to a year postpartum. Gunn said that he was aware of the state’s high maternal mortality rate, but he had not seen evidence that extending coverage would save money. When asked if the move could save lives, he told the AP, “That has not been part of the discussions that I’ve heard.”

Only after the state’s strict abortion ban went into effect did Gunn agree to stop blocking the extension.

Republican Gov. Tate Reeves posted on social media, “In a post-Dobbs world — we may even have to be willing to do things that make us ‘philosophically uncomfortable.’” He would support the Medicaid extension as part of a pro-life agenda. “As I’ve said many times, it will not be easy and it will not be free. But it will be worth it, as more children of God are brought into the world!”

Neither Reeves nor Gunn responded to ProPublica’s requests for comment. Scott was pleased that the men finally stopped thwarting the extension of coverage. But it also felt like a consolation prize.

Triggering Confusion

Not quite a year had passed since the Dobbs decision when a Black woman named Nancy Davis sat before a Louisiana House committee. She urged the panel, chaired by a White man, not to punish doctors if they abort nonviable fetuses.

“Step out of yourself for one minute, and try to envision what it’s been like for women in Louisiana,” she said.

During her visit to the capitol, Davis wondered: Where were the lawmakers who looked like her? Only nine Black women served in the entire Louisiana State Legislature — 6 percent in a state where they constitute 17 percent of residents. Yet Davis had just experienced very personally how a policy the legislature passed directly affected women like her.

About a month after the Dobbs decision’s release, the 36-year-old mother arrived at a hospital for a routine check up. She was 10 weeks pregnant and thrilled. When an ultrasound technician slid a wand across her belly, Davis peered eagerly at the gossamer image emerging into view on the monitor beside her.

Then, she felt everything pause.

“Why does my baby look that way?” she asked. The top of his head looked amorphous, like mist fading into the dark.

The technician slipped from the room.

Davis burst into sobs. Leaping up, she tugged on her clothes and stared at the image through tears. A physician soon explained that it appeared the top of the skull had not formed, a fatal anomaly. Davis recalled her also assuring, “This is one of the reasons for an abortion.” The doctor was referring to a narrow exception in Louisiana’s trigger ban, which had just gone into effect.

But Davis was enrolled in Medicaid, which did not cover abortions. The procedure would cost $6,000 out of pocket at the hospital, she said, so the doctor sent her to an abortion clinic. Davis found it shuttered.

When she returned to the hospital, a woman explained that the doctor could no longer provide her an abortion. “The director of the hospital shut it down because of the Louisiana abortion law and the fetus still having a heartbeat,” Davis recalled her saying. (Debate later ensued over whether the state’s abortion laws would have allowed her to get an abortion.)

For a month, Davis carried a fetus she knew would die. Some nights, she slipped outside and clutched her stomach, crying alone in the darkness so she didn’t wake her fiancé, Shedric Cole, or their other three children. But what could she do?

Desperate, she emailed local news outlets. A TV reporter came to interview her, and the video went viral. She wound up in touch with Planned Parenthood of Greater New York and The Brigid Alliance, which helped her book flights to New York and pay for a hotel, child care and meals.

On September 1, Davis and Cole arrived at a Manhattan clinic 1,400 miles from home. An abortion wasn’t something she could imagine someone wanting. But she did want their nightmare over.

After they returned home to Baton Rouge, Davis became determined to give more of a voice to women. She wants to run for office.

Feeling Overwhelmed

After Lamar, the Tennessee senator, pleaded for broader abortion exceptions, she drove home to Memphis, a majority-Black city in a county with the state’s highest ratio of pregnancy-associated deaths. She felt exhausted and disregarded.

“Black women are telling you, basically you’re killing me, and it’s like you don’t give a damn,” Lamar said. “My life is less valuable than theirs, and that is what hurts the most.”

Four months later, in August, she gave birth to a baby boy. Although she developed postpartum preeclampsia, she recovered and celebrated her healthy son with round brown eyes and chubby cheeks.

Yet, despite much-appreciated help from her own mother, the 33-year-old single mom quickly learned why many women with young children often don’t run for office. One day shortly after her maternity leave ended, she handled a phone call while greeting her mother, saying goodbye to her baby, saying goodbye to her mother and then rushing to her car to head to an assignment for her job overseeing a program that develops the Black teacher pipeline, stopping to fill the air in her car tires on the way.

“It’s overwhelming,” she said. “You feel like no one understands or cares, but also you know that you represent the masses of women dependent on you to be their voice.”

With January’s arrival, the Tennessee General Assembly is among legislatures across the Southeast getting back to work. Behind the door of her Senate office, Lamar hung a white board to track the bills she cares about most. It lists abortion, maternal mental health, doula certification and timely processing of rape kits.

She mustered hope for the months to come. Last year, she discovered a tactic that helped her pass a bill to study the expansion of doula services in Tennessee. She planned to employ the strategy again. To gain support from her male Republican colleagues, she had learned to present her bills as “pro-life” rather than pro-woman.

About the Data: How We Analyzed Representation in State Legislatures

ProPublica obtained a database detailing the demographic makeup of state populations and legislatures from the Reflective Democracy Campaign. The database includes race and gender information for all state legislators and was last updated in July, prior to the 2023 state elections. The state demographic data is from the 2020 census, with additional information from 2022 annual population estimates.

To assess representation of demographic groups, ProPublica calculated the ratio of percent representation of the group in the state legislature to percent representation in the state as a whole. A ratio of 1 can be interpreted as the proportion of a demographic in the state legislature equaling the proportion of that demographic among the state’s general population. A ratio larger than 1 means that the demographic is more present in the legislature than in the state population, and a ratio less than 1 means that the demographic is less present in the legislature than expected, given their prevalence in the state population. For instance, a ratio of 2 should be interpreted as there being twice the proportion of a demographic group in the state legislature as in the state population, and is described as overrepresentation by a factor of 2.

To be sure, an individual is not solely represented by the politicians who share their identity, nor does an individual politician work only towards the interests of constituents of the same identity. However, the expectation that a demographic group should be proportionally represented among politicians as in the population as a whole is intuitive and widely used as a proxy for representation in news reports.When assessing the representation of Black women and white men, we limited our analysis to states with a meaningful proportion of Black women. Black women make up between 0.2 percent to nearly one-fifth of state populations. As a result, we used the average proportion of Black women in state populations, 5.6 percent, as a threshold and focused on the 21 states with a higher-than-average proportion of Black women. We used the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s definition of the Southeast and used linear regression to assess trends in representation within and outside of the Southeast.

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