The National Conference of State Legislatures has developed an interesting interactive demographic map that allows you to examine the makeup of each state’s legislature by ethnicity, gender, age, religion and occupation and compare those figures to national averages. Oklahoma’s most notable, and unfortunate, variation from national demographic patterns is in the gender makeup of our Legislature. As Jean Warner, who runs the excellent Oklahoma Women’s Network Blog, never tires of reminding us, Oklahoma ranks behind only South Carolina in female representation in the Legislature. Only 11 percent of Oklahoma’s 149 members of the House and Senate are women; this is less than half the national average of 24 percent. In Vermont and New Hampshire, over one-third of state legislators are women. (This 2008 American Prospect article by Harold Meyerson provides perceptive insights on the regional variations in female officeholders).
Certainly, some women have succeeded in rising through the ranks of Oklahoma politics, winning statewide office to the positions of Lieutenant-Governor (Jari Askins, Mary Fallin), Superintendent of Instruction (Sandy Garrett), Insurance Commissioner (Kim Holland) and Corporation Commissioner (Denise Bode). The 2010 Governor’s race includes both Askins and Fallin as strong contenders. But in the Legislature, progress in increasing female representation and leadership has stalled and even reversed. In the Senate, not a single leadership position or committee chair is held by a woman, reflecting the all-male make-up of the 26-member Republican majority caucus. In the House, the situation is slightly better, with several women, such as Lee Denney, Lisa Billy, Skye McNeil, and Ann Coody chairing committees and serving in party leadership. However, since the retirement of Rep. Susan Winchester in 2008, women have been absent from the top leadership positions in the House as well.
As research by Cindy Simon Rosenethal and Sue Thomas, among others, has shown, the gender composition of legislatures affects the legislative process and policy outcomes. Female legislators often emphasize different policy priorities than their male counterparts and can bring different perspectives to legislative debates, especially on children’s issues, education, criminal justice and human services. We need to get back on the path to gender parity in the Legislature; for that, both our political parties need to be doing a much better job in Oklahoma of identifying the barriers that are keeping women from running for legislative office and of actively encouraging and supporting female candidates.