Did first female-majority legislature in US make a difference?

Did first female-majority legislature in US make a difference? – BBC News

Nevada made history when it became the first state in the US with a female-majority legislature, with women holding 51% of the seats, in December 2018.

The moment was hailed as a great victory for women – but did having more women in power make a practical difference?

Here are five areas Nevada legislated on in 2019 – which commentators say were helped by the fact there were more women at the table.

1. Compensating firefighters who develop breast, uterine and ovarian cancer

Firefighters can be exposed to toxic contaminants and carcinogens at work – and studies like this one from the CDC show that firefighters have higher rates of cancer compared to the general population.

Nevada’s law provides compensation for firefighters who develop cancers as an occupational disease – but certain types of cancer – including breast, womb and ovarian cancer – were not covered until recently.

“It had never been something that people thought of – but we have a lot of women serving as firefighters now,” says Nicole Cannizzaro, the Senate majority leader. “They were exposed to the same types of chemicals – often cancerous – but were not covered for the same type of work as their [male] counterparts.”

Did first female-majority legislature in US make a difference? – BBC News

2. Paid leave – including sick leave – for employees

Five years ago, Jose Macias’ mother collapsed from a stroke while she was cleaning toilets at a convention center. She was rushed to hospital, but died shortly afterwards.

“She felt sick that morning, but she still went to work,” Mr Macias says, adding that she had worried about “who’s going to pay the rent, who’s going to buy the groceries?”

“She never had the chance to go see a doctor, or take time off work and get a check up, and then it was too late… she was just working until she collapsed.”

Did first female-majority legislature in US make a difference? – BBC News

3. Equal pay legislation

According to rights groups, Nevada women earn about $0.86 for every $1 that men make.

Legislation that took effect in January means that companies who knowingly practise gender pay discrimination can now be subject to fines – and they’ll also be required to pay workers for lost wages.

Ms Cannizzaro says equal pay was discussed in the previous 2017 session but it was not until 2019 that there was a wider understanding of why legislation was needed, because most of the female lawmakers had seen real-life examples of the pay gap, she says.

The bill’s been welcomed by women in Nevada, including Brooke Malone, 29, who works in the non-profit sector, and Shelley Lyons, 57, a former chef who now works as a driver.

4. The ‘Trust Nevada Women Act’

Did first female-majority legislature in US make a difference? – BBC News

The legislature passed a bill – nicknamed the “Trust Nevada Women Act” – that decriminalised some activities linked to abortion, such as providing miscarriage-inducing drugs.

It also removed the requirement that physicians need to certify a woman’s age and marital status, and explain “the physical and emotional implications” of the procedure, before performing an abortion. Instead, the physician simply needs to explain the “discomforts and risks” that could result.

During the bill hearings, different views on gender and rights came to the forefront but the bill ultimately passed along party lines, with all but one Democrat voting for it, and all Republicans voting against.

Nonetheless, it made headlines – as it bucked the national trend during a year when several US states enacted abortion restrictions.

The Guttmacher Institute says a total of 17 states passed anti-abortion laws that year – although most of the laws have been temporarily blocked by federal courts.

Nevada’s “bill sent a huge message – it’s taking a pretty firm stand, especially when the national political environment is moving the opposite way,” says Rebecca Gill, a political science professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas who focuses on gender and politics.

5. Measures on sexual assault and domestic violence

Did first female-majority legislature in US make a difference? – BBC News

A series of laws related to domestic violence, sexual assault and sex trafficking had bipartisan support, and were passed unanimously.

One bill increased penalties for domestic violence and the battery of pregnant women, while another doubled the length of time a temporary protection order for a victim of domestic violence could last.

A third bill removed the statute of limitations for sexual assault prosecutions, where the identity of the accused person is established by DNA evidence. And the legislature also allocated additional resources to help victims of sex trafficking.

Prof Gill says the fact that Nevada had the US’s first female-majority legislature was “very prominent in legislators’ minds” – particularly due to the media attention it received. “I think it did offer an opportunity to catch up on the kinds of legislation that, had women been at the table all along, would have been done before.”

She also argues that the sheer numbers of female legislators would have helped influence the debate: “When there are a whole bunch of women who can attest to why an issue is important, it gives these types of issues the gravitas they deserve.”

There were also more bills looking at sex trafficking and domestic violence, says Senator Julia Ratti.

“With all of those issues, they just start a little further down the line when you have women sitting in the legislature – because they’re not just a concept, but something many of us have experienced.”

How did we get here?

Female representation in Nevada has been edging upwards for a number of years – the legislature was 39.7% female in 2017, and 33% female in 2015.

However the growth so far has only been on the Democratic side, and there hasn’t been a female governor yet.

Experts say there have been concerted efforts to recruit and train more female candidates – and that the fact there are term limits in Nevada’s legislature means there are more openings.

There’s also another factor – Nevada’s legislature only meets for four months every other year, which means its representatives are part-time lawmakers who also juggle other jobs.

“It’s a lot of work, it’s not much pay, and unfortunately these are the kinds of positions that women tend to be overrepresented in,” says Prof Gill.

Nonetheless, activists say the female-majority legislature has had a positive impact by inspiring more women to run for office.

For example, the number of women running for judicial seats has already “increased over this cycle”, says Prof Cosgrove.

Judicial filing reports show that more than half of the candidates in Nevada’s largest county, Clark County, are female, while women make up more than 40% of candidates in the second-largest county, Washoe.

Electra Skrzydlewski from Emerge Nevada, a training programme for Democratic women who are running for office, says applications have increased.

“This renewed sense of duty to get involved is not going to go anywhere,” says Ms Skrzydlewski. “Women are taking stock of how they can shape the future.”

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