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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.

Term limits are in effect in 15 states, in every region of the country. Created in the belief that they would make statehouses less hidebound and more representative, the rules remain a topic of considerable controversy, much of it about what effect the turnover has on legislative effectiveness.

In six states, term limits have been repealed by the legislature or killed by the courts.

Since 1995, the year before the first limits were imposed for state legislatures, the percentage of women in the legislatures has grown from 20.6 percent to 23.5 percent, an increase of 200 seats nationwide -- on average, four per state.

The overall increase in states with term limits, however, has been smaller than in states without. The number of women in the Michigan legislature, from the year before term limits were enacted to now, dropped from 34 to 29. Missouri went from 45 to 38, Ohio from 28 to 23 and Arizona from 32 to 31. In Florida, women held 38 seats in 2000 and 38 today.

A few states registered gains, notably California, where the number of female legislators climbed from 25 in 1995 to 34 today. Yet even in Sacramento, women occupy just 28 percent of statehouse seats.

"It's a nice idea, 'Well, the opportunities are there,' but women haven't stepped forward to take advantage of them," said Susan J. Carroll, a leading researcher at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. In most of the cases studied, no female candidates sought to replace women who were losing their seats to term limits.

"Recruitment is absolutely critical," Carroll said. "It can be done by the party, it can be done by the women being term-limited out, it can be done by independent organizations, but it doesn't seem to be being done in a lot of places."

Studies show that women are less likely than men to run for office on their own initiative and less likely to try a second time if defeated. They often have greater family responsibilities than men and tend to feel far less certain that they are qualified, according to a 2004 Brown University study titled "Why Don't Women Run for Office?"

"When we train women to run, the first thing they stand up and ask is, 'Can you have a family and do this job?' " said Marie Wilson, president of the nonpartisan White House Project. "It's harder to get women to run if you don't go out there and ask them specifically to run."

Groups have worked for many years to increase the number of women in political office and to push them through the "marble ceiling" from lower offices. A record number of women hold seats on Capitol Hill -- 16 in the Senate and 71 in the House, 16 percent in each chamber.

In Minnesota, a state without term limits, women have increased their numbers in the legislature from 50 to 70 since 1995, including a jump of 10 last year. House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher (D) credits two factors: the growing number of electable female candidates and the prominence of issues such as education and health care.

"There are more and more women who are serving on local school boards, running for city councils and winning, and creating a pipeline," Kelliher said. "The scholarly literature says it takes on average three times that a woman is asked to run for office for her to do it. My sense is we're maybe down to two times."

Neither Virginia nor Maryland has term limits for state legislators. Since 1995, representation by women in Richmond has grown by half, to 17.1 percent; in Annapolis, the share climbed from 28.7 percent to 33 percent.

For those who want more women in office, term limits continue to offer opportunities along with challenges. In Michigan, 110 seats -- 57 held by Republicans, 43 by Democrats -- will come open in the 2008 and 2010 elections. Although the state has a female governor and a female U.S. senator, analysts agree that it will take work if women are to claim more seats in Lansing.

"The level of women's leadership is somewhat fragile," said Kira Sanbonmatsu, a senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics. "It's not a foregone conclusion that women's representation will increase in the future.

Staff writer Kari Lydersen contributed to this report.

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