After Adopting Term Limits, States Lose Female Legislators

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 22, 2007

CHICAGO -- Jo Ann Davidson remembers feeling optimistic that term limits would land more women in Ohio's legislature, where 32 of the 132 seats were held by women in the mid-1990s. Yet in the seven years since the law took effect, the figure has fallen to 23.

And now women elected after voters imposed eight-year term limits are surrendering seats because of the rules. Often, the posts are going to men.

"It's been hard to keep the numbers up," said Davidson, who was Ohio's first female House speaker and now is co-chair of the Republican National Committee. "We pick them up by ones and twos and threes. When all of a sudden you have 40-some seats open, you don't have as many women step up as men to replace them."

Of women, she said: "They're harder to recruit. They're harder to convince to run."

The phenomenon Davidson described holds true across the country, where term-limited legislatures with rising numbers of women are the exception. In fact, gains during the past 12 years have been slightly greater in states without term limits, according to political scientist Gary Moncrief.

"The evidence has shown that it has had absolutely no positive effect at all," said Moncrief, a Boise State University professor who predicted 15 years ago that term limits would increase representation for women. "The logic was impeccable, the empirical evidence not at all. The problem is there aren't as many women running as we expected."

In a political year that features Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as the first female House speaker and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) as the most prominent female presidential candidate in history, politicians and interest groups are puzzling over ways to advance the prospects of women in state capitals.

"It's like bailing. We're doing everything we can to keep up with the leaks," said Ramona Oliver, a spokeswoman for Emily's List, which backs Democratic women for office. "Ultimately, the negative impact is going to be felt all the way up. If we don't have numbers of women growing in the legislature, we're not going to be growing women in the Congress."

Dianne Byrum lost her Michigan House seat through term limits last year, just as she was poised to become the first female speaker. She had already been term-limited out of the state Senate.

"I was the first woman in Michigan's history to ever lead a caucus, and not only lead that caucus, but take it to its best performance in 70 years," Byrum said. "And I had to walk out the door."

Byrum led the recruiting drive for House Democrats. In November, Democratic women scored a net gain of four seats -- Byrum's 28-year-old daughter won a race to replace her -- but Republicans lost two women in the House and three in the Senate, dropping women's share of seats below 19 percent for the first time since 1992.

"We have a long ways to go," Byrum said.

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