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Female Lawmakers Talk Inequality in the Capitol

Female lawmakers make up about 20 percent of both Texas legislative chambers. In a state where women and men make up an almost equal portion of the population, the lack of female voices in the Capitol raises questions.

The Texas Capitol, May 15, 2015.

Female lawmakers make up about 20 percent of both Texas legislative chambers, a number that has increased over time, but that is far from representing the population of the state.

A little more than 19 percent of the lawmakers in the Texas House are women, a figure roughly mirrored in the Senate where women constitute 23 percent of the chamber. In a state where women and men make up an almost equal portion of the population, the lack of female voices in the Capitol raises questions.

Why does this discrepancy exist?

Women face numerous challenges in the workforce, especially women who hold positions of power, according to state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, a Democrat from Houston. She said these barriers extend to women at the Capitol, but they’re no different than the ones in most other workplaces.

“It’s not like the Senate rules or the seniority system,” Garcia said. “It's really not any other kind of real structural barrier that’s in place. It’s just sort of you know the institutional and the cultural sensitivities of what I call, you know, the guy’s world and the guys being guys.”

Beth Cubriel, former executive director of the Republican Party of Texas, said while women are “obviously” underrepresented in the Legislature, it is not necessarily a problem.

“Personally, I think it would be great to have more women involved at that level, but I think we have really active women involved in other levels that are just choosing to lead in different ways,” Cubriel said. “Probably in ways that are more amenable to raising kids and being moms.”

While their numbers in the Legislature are small, Cubriel said women are more inclined to operate in supportive roles as opposed to running for office themselves.

“The problem is, for whatever reason, women are more anxious to get involved and probably a little gun shy when it comes to putting our names on the ballot, but are happy to help in other ways,” Cubriel said.

Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton — who decided to run for the Texas House after her husband, who previously held the seat, died of leukemia — said she thinks the discrepancy ultimately comes down to women not wanting to campaign for office.

After putting so much time and energy into her husband’s campaign, Crownover said running for office was a natural step, though other woman may not have the same inclination.

“I have enjoyed, totally, working in the Legislature, but I think the campaigns, they've gotten pretty brutal now, I think that is maybe the hurdle,” Crownover said. “Women would love to serve, but they are not ready to put themselves or their families through some of the irrational things that go on during the campaign.”

Has this inequality always existed?

First elected to the House in 1973, Houston Democratic state Rep. Senfronia Thompson has served longer than any other female lawmaker in Texas. Thompson was one of a handful of women in the House when she was elected and faced significant pushback from male members. Although the number of female lawmakers has grown significantly since her early days in the Legislature, Thompson said there is still work to be done.

“When I got in, we had a large number of women as compared to what had been the previous norm,” Thompson said. “Over the years, we began to grow by one, maybe two, and we’re finally at the number where we are today… If it was representative of the population we would be in control, wouldn’t we?”

When Thompson was a young woman serving in the Legislature, she said she was often disrespected by male members — one of whom referred to her as his “black mistress.”

"When I got there to the Legislature, there are certain barriers you have as a woman and if you’re an African American woman or a Hispanic woman, there are even some additional ones,” Thompson said. "I got up and I gave a personal privilege speech on the floor of the House and then I was isolated. I kind of put myself in a box of what I could do and how far I could fly in terms of legislation and being able to be impacted on something. I was just isolated because the men felt that I was out of place. It hurt for a long time."

Historically, in politics, women have been more likely to work in the background, said state Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place. But women are often the “worker bees” of the Republican party, she said, which with time motivates women to run.

“We’ve done all of the envelope stuffing,” Davis said. “We’ve done all of the phone calling. You see the confidence building and women say, ‘We can do that. We can run for office.’”

What is the impact of these unequal numbers? Are there any clear solutions?

The impact this inequality has on the Capitol and the women leading it varies from lawmaker to lawmaker.

Crownover said she has been judged based on her actions rather than gender and hasn’t faced obstacles because she is a woman.

“I think every member that comes down there is judged on their abilities, in their authenticity and willingness to work with the team,” Crownover said. “And I'm quite aware of it that there are more men than women, but I have not felt like it was the boys' club.”

Thompson said she was constantly belittled as a female member, placed on inconsequential committees and given few responsibilities by male lawmakers.

“People want to hold it against you saying, ‘we can’t let this woman do this, we can’t let this woman do that,’” she said.

In order to combat this treatment, Thompson said more female voices are needed in the Legislature.

“It’s going to take women who believe in themselves, that they have what it takes to really come to the Legislature and be a legislator and that can make a difference and not feel like they have to make a huge difference one time, but they can make incremental differences in the lives of the people in the state,” Thompson said.

Freshman lawmaker Mary González, D-Clint, said she seeks to combat inequality through education and awareness. She said she requires all of her staff watch “Miss Representation,” a documentary that discusses sexism in modern America.

“I wanted them to think about the intersections of gender and policy,” González said. “We’ve nearly elected 5,000 state legislators in the history of Texas, but a little over 130 of us have been women. Until you strategically and intentionally try to break that trend, it’s just never going to happen.”

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