Just add women

For more on women in legislatures, see http://bit.ly/2lQvA2y

It’s certainly satisfying to see the Nevada Legislature in second place this year in number of female members. Nevada is at 39.7 percent, just behind Vermont. According to Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics the number of women serving in state legislatures has risen steadily since 1971 when just 4.5 percent of legislators were female, to an all-time high this year of 24.8 percent.

Marking the increasing power of women in the statehouse, a bi-partisan Nevada Women’s Caucus met, joined by female lobbyists and speakers from the Nevada Commission on Women and the League of Women Voters.

Leaders told the media they thought it was the first Women’s Caucus in the Nevada Legislaure, but that’s not entirely true. A bi-partisan Women’s Caucus operated for many years, traditionally convened amid little fanfare and media attention by the most senior female member in the legislative body. But there were no designer cupcakes or warm welcoming speeches from legislative leaders at their meetings and certainly no lobbyists or media.

Former assemblymember Chris Guinchigliani remembers the suspicious reaction the Women’s Caucus generated from male legislators who wanted to know what was discussed in Caucus meetings and their skeptical comments when she told them the women talked about baseball. The meetings were usually held in the evenings in empty committee rooms and it was a treat if someone remembered to bring some snacks. The discussion centered around pending bills of interest to women and their families.

Caucus meetings were always congenial at the beginning of each session, but after the first month or so, it would become apparent that controversy from the committee room followed a bill into the caucus, and party ideology would interfere with unanimity. Bills that dealt with abortion were generally off limits, as was raising taxes, even to support subsidized child care or a small increase in welfare stipends.

By the first committee deadline day, the Women’s Caucus would usually splinter as members became overwhelmed with their schedules, finding less and less time to meet and little inclination to search for the increasingly smaller pieces of common ground once the easy bills had passed.

One exception to the rule was Giunchigliani’s bill in 1999 to require insurance companies to cover contraceptives as part of their prescription drug package. Nearly every member of the Women’s Caucus supported the bill, which was aggressively opposed by the insurance industry. Ultimately it passed with just three women, all far-right Republicans, opposed—Sharron Angle, Kathy Von Tobel and Ann O’Connell.

Sometimes defeating a bill is as important as passing one. The Women’s Caucus played a key role in defeating SB 75 in the 2005 session, a bill pushed by rural judges to allow rural domestic violence offenders to complete their counseling via video-conference instead of the face-to-face counseling required by statute. The bill passed the Senate with opposition from Democratic women but was defeated in the Assembly Judiciary Committee when the Women’s Caucus harnessed its considerable force behind the scenes to convince a majority of the male committee members of the peril of easing the requirements.

On other issues during those decades, the Women’s Caucus was not successful, usually because of a fracture over raising taxes to support social programs or ideological differences such as whether pharmacists should be allowed to decline to fill birth control prescriptions for unmarried women.

Time will tell whether the 2017 version of the Women’s Caucus becomes more of a social club than a force of substantive change. And once women achieve parity at 50 percent of the legislative body, perhaps a Women’s Caucus won’t be needed at all.