Would women change anything?
In 1974, a midterm election year, there was a lot of talk about the “Year of the Woman.” In Connecticut, for instance, Ella Grasso became the first woman elected governor without being preceded by a spouse.
But the year was better known as the Watergate year, and one of the Nevada women swept into office by reform sentiment was Sue Wagner. Since 1974, as Wagner moved from the Nevada Assembly to the Nevada Senate to the lieutenant governorship and finally to the Nevada Gaming Comission, there have been several other years “of the woman” as women have slowly gained ground.
Now retired, Wagner is watching as a spotlight has been thrown on Nevada since the publication of a June 30 New York Times piece reporting that Nevada voters are within mathematical reach of something no state has ever done—electing a legislature with a majority of women.
The news has already had impact. The Kansas City Star is editorializing on whether Missouri and Kansas can keep up with Nevada. In Dublin, the Irish Times reported, “The state already has one of the highest rates of female representation in the country—38 percent of those in the Nevada legislature are women.” By contrast, the national figure for women in all state legislatures is 25.4 percent.
And, of course, it is news inside the state, but mostly in that boosterish way in which journalism normally approaches benchmarks.
Almost no one asks what a female majority in the Nevada Legislature would mean.
“Absolutely, it would make a difference,” Wagner said. “It made a difference last session. If you look at the bills passed and signed by the governor, it made a difference.”
In 2017, with a major female presence, legislators made Washoe County’s Teresa Benitez-Thompson the Democratic floor leader. African American legislators became Assembly speaker, Senate Democratic leader and gave the Democratic response to Gov. Brian Sandoval’s message to the legislators.
When innovative and edgy legislation was advanced, women were usually at the center of it. A plan by Clark County Sen. Yvanna Cancela for the state to track insulin pricing freaked out the pharmaceutical industry, which poured lobbyists into the state, and resulted in one of those vintage maneuvers from yesteryear in which a bill sponsored by a woman was co-opted by a man. Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed Cancela’s measure. It was then watered down and passed again under the sponsorship of Sen. Michael Roberson.
Even when a male legislator brought forward groundbreaking proposals, women were there to help. Washoe legislator Michael Sprinkle’s proposal for a Nevada Health Plan to take up the slack if Republicans in Congress succeeded in torpedoing the Affordable Care Act was embraced by influential women legislators.
Legislation was enacted requiring insurance plans to cover contraceptives, penalizing abuse or neglect in guardianships, beefing up regulation of day care. As other legislatures beat up on Planned Parenthood, Nevada reinforced legal protections for women both in family planning and in wider women’s health issues.
The legislators also dealt with a sexual harassment issue that had festered under male leadership for more than a decade.
Families and children were at the top of legislative concerns. That should not have been a surprise to anyone. It’s a lesson that has been learned again and again over the years. When Sen. Diana Glomb of Washoe County became the first woman on the Senate Finance Committee in 1991, she asked questions no one had ever asked before, and they frequently involved the impact of state programs and spending on families. She brought out information legislators had not previously dealt with. There was no way it couldn’t affect policy.
Women in power not only elevate some concerns, they reduce others.
For decades beginning in the 1960s, male legislators got themselves reelected with expensive bills that increased criminal penalties, created new crimes, made parole more difficult to get. New prisons had to be built each biennium, and the state sometimes had the highest incarceration rate in the world. One U.S. Justice Department study said taxpayers in only two other states paid more for their criminal justice systems.
Republican Wagner, who chaired Senate Judiciary, though she was not a lawyer, made common cause with Democrat Robert Sader to get a handle on this expensive habit, and they were able to curb the practice—until they both departed the legislature.
Some might argue that Wagner is merely voicing female chauvinism when she says, “Women work much better in a situation where you need to compromise,” but it has been demonstrated in politics repeatedly, both in and out of legislative halls. And it speaks to why women function differently—they bring different life experiences to politics. A family nurturer has different experience in settling disputes. Female lobbyists at the Nevada Legislature do not have the same kind of hard-sell approach to their jobs that many men do. During the Obama administration, Maine U.S. Sen. Susan Collins told ABC News, “What I find is, with all due … deference to our male colleagues, that women’s styles tend to be more collaborative.”
What this can mean is that women tend to welcome working with members of the other political party more. Whether that will be true in the increasingly polarized U.S. political world is uncertain in 2018. The Nevada Legislature did not initially fall victim to the Congress-style of meanspirited politics, but that poison has long since seeped in, and the Kansas City Star in its editorial on Nevada noted that “conservative women running for office have to run even further to the right than their male counterparts to prove their conservative credentials.” That does not cultivate an environment of cooperation. If that is true, the skills of women legislators will really be tested, with or without a majority. In addition, a gender majority does not create a party majority, and that is the kind of majority legislatures are accustomed to using to govern.
“I’m very hopeful that the next legislative session will get over the 50 percent because it would be good for us,” Wagner said.
It might be good for Nevada. But if they end up having to navigate the same toxic environment that now exists, will it be good for the women legislators themselves? There is a reason it’s not easy to get people to run for office these days.