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Women's ranks in Arkansas Legislature to tie '09 record

Rise in female officeholders in state mirrors U.S. trend by John Moritz | January 7, 2019 at 4:30 a.m.
Rep. Sarah Capp, a Republican from Ozark, speaks during a news conference Wednesday to announce a new initiative called ARGIRLSLEAD. Women in the state House announced an effort to encourage girls to think about their careers, education and entering politics.

The number of women in the Arkansas Legislature in 2019 will match the record high of 32 set in 2009, and six more women will serve than did in the previous General Assembly.

On Jan. 14, 25 women will be among the 100 representatives sworn into the House for the 92nd General Assembly, up from 18 last year. Meanwhile, seven women will return to the Senate, down from eight previously.

Each chamber will have the same number of women who served in 2009-10, during the 87th General Assembly.

The House's class of 24 freshmen will include seven women. (Newly elected state Rep. Julie Mayberry, R-East End, previously served from 2015-17.)

Both Arkansas and Congress will have the same share of female lawmakers -- 23.7 percent -- this year, though the U.S. House and Senate have a record 127 women among their ranks, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.

The center, which is based at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics, said state legislatures across the nation will see a record 2,112 women serving after the November elections. Nevada last month became the first state in the country to have a majority-female Legislature.

Arkansas is one of 20 states that has never had a female governor. However, it did have the first woman who was elected to the U.S. Senate, Hattie Caraway.

"Overall, more women are becoming interested in the political arena," said state Rep. Charlene Fite, R-Van Buren, the most senior-ranking woman in the House. "As they see more women doing this, they feel it is something they can do as well."

In October 2017, state Rep. Sarah Capp, R-Ozark, started a project in which several female lawmakers filmed video monologues that were posted to social media with the hashtag "ARGIRLSLEAD," with the intent of attracting interest in their careers from young women. (Capp could not be reached for comment about the effectiveness of the campaign.)

"It's exactly the kind of thing we need our young girls to see," said Rep.-elect Nicole Clowney, D-Fayetteville, who said she decided to run in November 2017 when her then-6-year-old daughter asked whether serving in the Legislature was a job reserved for men.

"She's 8 now, and she'll come and watch me [be] sworn in," Clowney said in a recent interview.

House leadership also began pressing members to attend a sexual harassment-prevention seminar last year, after the rise of the #MeToo movement and harassment scandals that forced resignations of lawmakers in other states, as well as in Congress.

And recently, the Arkansas Ethics Commission clarified that campaign funds can be used for child care expenses, at the request of Gayatri Agnew, a mother who was running for a state House seat in Bentonville. (Agnew lost her race to the incumbent, state Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville.)

Other issues have been simpler.

When U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois, last year became the first sitting U.S. senator to give birth while in office, the Senate had to adopt a formal rule change to allow her newborn to be taken onto the floor during a vote. But no such prohibitions were previously in place in the Arkansas Senate when Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, gave birth in August.

"It's been very family-friendly and mom-friendly so far," Davis said. "I think it's important for other women to see that we can be new mothers and legislators."

In 2009, when women set the record for numbers in the House and Senate, there were a few growing pains in the previously male-dominated Legislature, recalled state Auditor Andrea Lea, a Republican who at the time was a freshman lawmaker from Russellville. Lea described one example in which she paused to take a photo with several male colleagues, and the female photographer asked that wives step out of the picture, not realizing that Lea was a member.

"Women tended not to be invited to normal gatherings. That started changing," Lea said. The auditor added that she felt the House was "inclusive," while characterizing herself as someone who "doesn't wait to be included."

Twenty-one women in the state Legislature are members of the Republican Party, which controls large majorities in each chamber. However, women will make up a larger share of the Democratic caucuses, 11 out of 33 members.

State Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, said that while the number of women in the 92nd General Assembly is "something to celebrate," she also noted that the number of female lawmakers still falls far below women's share of half the population.

"A lot of people worked very deliberately to make sure that a lot of women were elected," Elliott said. "You don't have to be deliberate to get men elected."

Photo by Cary Jenkins
Rep. Mary Bentley of Perryville, Rep. Monte Hodges of Blytheville, first lady Susan Hutchinson and Rep. Charlene Fite of Van Buren
Photo by Mitchell PE Masilun
Rep. Sarah Capp, R-Ozark, is shown speaking at a press conference in this file photo.
Rep. Nicole Clowney, D-Fayetteville, is shown in this photo.
Photo by handout
Breanne Davis
Photo by Arkansas Secretary of State
Auditor Andrea Lea
Photo by Cary Jenkins
Lt. Col. Jared Paslay, Joyce Elliott and Terence Bolden

SundayMonday on 01/07/2019

CORRECTION: Members of the 92nd General Assembly will be sworn in next Monday, Jan. 14, the first day of the regular session. The wrong date was in an earlier version of this article.

Print Headline: Women's ranks in Arkansas Legislature to tie '09 record

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