Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, testifies during the 2017 special legislative session on the House floor. Behind her is House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia. Stokes is one of the 22 women lawmakers in the 2017 session. They comprise only 15 percent of the 144 legislative seats, well below the national average.
The current National Conference of State Legislatures’ list
of states ranked by percentage of women in the state legislature shows Louisiana has improved to 44th place after being dead last in 2015.
That year, Louisiana had 13 women in the House and four in the Senate. In 2016, those numbers had increased to 17 and five, respectively. The 22 women represent 15 percent of the total delegates.
State Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, noted that more than 50 percent of Louisiana’s population is female. To only have five out of 39 senators is, as she put it, “wholly inadequate.”
“Many women are beginning to step up and address some of the issues and concerns that our publics are faced with, just as men have done over the years,” says Rep. Barbara Carpenter, D-Baton Rouge, who was part of the 2016 increase.
Carpenter said when women legislators take an interest in issues, such as prison reform, they consider different variables than male counterparts, such as its effect on children of incarcerated parents or the spouse of an incarcerated individual, as well as the effect on household income.
Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, who has served in the Legislature for nearly a decade, believes the lack of women in the legislature affects the state.
“When you don’t have enough women to stand up for the rights of women and vote on the policy that’s necessary, then you always get an objective that’s different than what a woman would have,” she says.
For example, Smith pointed to bills that would ensure equal pay to women have failed to pass into law for many years and will appear before the Legislature again this year.
“We’ve had women vote against it,” she said.
Last summer, the Louisiana House Labor Committee voted down Senate Bill 254, which would have required private business to guarantee equal pay for men and women employees. The bill had cleared the Senate for the first time in legislative history, but the terminating committee vote was 10-5.
The author of that bill, Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, has already pre-filed two new bills for the upcoming legislative session that pertain to women statewide: Senate Bill 2 reattempts last year’s equal pay bill while Senate Bill 24 exempts diapers and feminine hygiene products from state and local sales and use tax.
Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, pre-filed House Bill 222 last month which would prohibit employers from taking actions against employees for discussing wage information.
"One way to help women and men know whether they are being compensated equally is pay transparency,” Moreno has said.
Peterson said the small number of women legislators makes passing legislation that pertains to the females a challenge. “It seems sometimes like the issues aren’t resonating [with male legislators]. If we had more women, it would be a lot easier to advocate for our issues.”
But the low percentage may not be the only factor. Smith suggested party affiliation also plays a role: “We don’t have as many Democratic women as we do Republican women.”
Nationally, state legislatures are about one-quarter female, and the vast majority of those women are in the House and are Democrats.
For Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, the low percentage of women lawmakers is not what concerns her when it comes to bills pertaining to women’s issues, but rather the dividing party lines. “Somehow, we’ve let all women’s issues be marginalized into partisan issues.”
Stokes said the lack of women also impacts the overall social aspect in the Legislature. “It gets in the way.”
As an example, she points out that the men get to know each other on hunting and fishing trips, which helps with rapport. She said that is missing for the women. “The opportunity (men) have to get to know each other," Stokes says, "is so much deeper and more profound than our ability to get to know women.” Stokes noted she and a few other female lawmakers recently went on a fishing trip. That gave them a chance to build additional rapport.
Smith said legislators encourage women to run for office, but there are varying reasons why a woman does not run. A prospective legislator could be a young mother, or a single woman, who is not attracted to run because of the legislature’s pay, which Smith called “very low.”
Peterson also said female candidates have to take more into consideration before running. “Guys wake up and say, 'I’m running,'" Peterson says. "Women say, ‘Well, how does this impact my family?’”
Women in office need to show potential female candidates that running for office is not as difficult as it seems, Peterson adds. She encourages women to seek public office because it is incumbent on them to be “at the table” for policy discussions. As Peterson puts it: “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”
Smith said the Women’s Caucus puts on a workshop that teaches women the ropes of running for office. The caucus especially encourages women not to “start large” but instead to run for a school board or another committee just to “get your feet wet.”
All three of the March 25 state representative special elections either elected men or sent male candidates to the runoff. Of the nine total candidates in those three districts who were on the ballot, only one was female. She received 13 percent of the vote.
None of the 13 candidates to fill former-Senator Troy Brown’s vacant seat for Legislative District 2 are female. The primary is April 29.
Six states have lower percentages of women in their legislatures than Louisiana: Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, West Virginia, Oklahoma and Wyoming.