The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The women-in-power revolution: In state legislatures, #TimesUp, guys

The Virginia General Assembly opened its 2018 legislative session with a record number of 28 women serving in the House of Delegates. (Video: Virginia House of Delegates, Photo: Timothy C. Wright/Virginia House of Delegates)
Placeholder while article actions load

For generations, the only thing that changed in the Virginia legislature was the hair.

Powerful men in dark suits and powdered wigs became powerful men in dark suits and comb-overs. The Virginia House of Delegates, which bills itself as the oldest lawmaking body in the New World, remained stubbornly and steadfastly male — the same as state legislatures across the nation.

Until now. #TimesUp, boys.

In Richmond on Wednesday, the sea of dark suits was broken up with bright spots of red and robin's-egg blue, the splash of jade green, the pastels of an infant sleeping on a baby blanket, a purple sheath.

It was a historic day, with a record number of women who had been elected to the House of Delegates taking their seats.

Of course, let's not get too carried away. The Virginia House is now just 28 percent female, so there's a long way to go to achieve gender parity. Still, that's a huge change from being only 17 percent female before November's landmark election.

And get this. Gov.-elect Ralph Northam (D) also made history with his Cabinet appointments — the Cabinet for the first time will be majority female.

2017: The Unexpected (and Inspiring) Year of the Woman

Look at that, Justin Trudeau. It's one better, isn't it?

This is also significant for stubbornly masculine Virginia, which has managed to elect a woman to a statewide office only once in its history — Mary Sue Terry, who served as Virginia attorney general.

Terry lost a 1993 run for governor against Republican George Allen, who trailed her in early polling. But the far right had plenty of time to catch up, with personal attacks on Terry, who was single and childless at 46.

The governor's mansion shouldn't be "a sterile building" but a home "where a man and his wife live, and with the laughter of their children," former National Security Council official Oliver North said as he campaigned for Allen.

Almost 25 years later, women faced similar flavors of scrutiny on the campaign trail. Just about every mom running for office was excoriated in comment sections for her choices. When Jennifer Carroll Foy, one of the Virginia Military Institute's first female graduates and a longtime public defender, won her race, here's how one local television station played it: "Mother of Premature Twins Wins Virginia House of Delegates Seat."

But this year, condemnations didn't scare voters away.

And there was no better evidence than the photo of federal workplace policy expert and new delegate Kathy Tran (D-Fairfax) as she took the oath of office on opening day of the legislative session Wednesday, her infant daughter — her fourth child — cuddled on her shoulder.

It was especially delicious that Tran took over the House seat vacated by Del. David B. Albo, who helped make Virginia the butt of national jokes because his wife was turned off by his party's move to require intrusive, transvaginal ultrasounds 24 hours before an abortion.

Virginia leaders have a womb obsession, and women are sick of it

Five years ago, Albo actually turned on some whacka-whacka porn music on the House floor as he whined to his pals that after the kids were in bed, with the red wine popped and the 46-inch TV on, his wife called it a night when the transvaginal ultrasound debate took over the big screen.


Did I say #TimesUp already?

"It was the right moment, the right time, because women just said, 'We are not going to take this anymore,' " said Susan Platt, who lost her run last year to match Terry's historic feat when she was beaten in her primary race for lieutenant governor.

In 2008, Platt, who had run campaigns and political staffs for 30 years, got together with Terry and lamented at the state of the House of Delegates. At the time, it was 11 percent women.

They created a group called the Farm Team, and they began mentoring 23 women on how to run for state offices. "Women are different candidates," Platt said. "Whenever you want a woman to run, you have to ask her three times. Men? They just assume they're ready and going to win, and they run." For nearly 10 years, Terry and Platt met with potential candidates, went to meet-ups, sponsored breakfasts. And now? Their efforts helped make that 11 percent a 28 percent.

"But it's not just about different colors and lipstick and making it look different by adding more women," Platt said. "Women govern differently. Women have a different way of listening and compromising. They don't just get up and walk away from the table when things don't go their way."

That can be summed up in a viral tweet that online comic James Breakwell, who tweets as @XplodingUnicorn, posted this week.

"I played Dungeons and Dragons with my daughters," he wrote. "They were supposed to fight the wolves surrounding a town. Instead, they fed the wolves and turned them into their friendly wolf army. Girls, man. They'll take over the world."

Women are fed up. And that was clear as the makeup of state legislatures changed across the nation in the 2017 elections.

"What is noteworthy is that, nationally, the percentage of legislators who are women has at last reached 25," said Katie Fischer Ziegler, a program manager at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

Again, let's not get too excited. That's only halfway to equality in a country 51 percent female. And it reminds us that Congress is only 19 percent female. But that state number is an upward tick after years of no progress.

"That ratio has hovered at 24-point-something percent for almost 10 years," Ziegler said.

And maybe this is the real ground zero for the women-in-power revolution, the gathering of pebbles that will become a mountain.

Because day to day, legislation at the state level often has the bigger impact on Americans' lives. And more women in state offices will ultimately lead to more women in Congress and more women in governors' mansions.

No state government accurately represents its constituents yet.

Arizona and Vermont come closest, with 40 percent of their legislative seats held by women, according to the NCSL's data.

Virginia is now solidly in the middle, ranking 22nd in the nation with its influx of women. Maryland does a little better, with 31 percent women.

But check this out. What do you think is the worst state for women in elected office, with only 11 percent?

It's a lesson in peaking early. The territory of Wyoming was the first place in the nation, in 1869, to offer women unrestricted suffrage. The state's official nickname is the Equality State.

But with a state legislature that's only 11 percent female, Wyoming, you get the sad trombone sound.

No. The highest glass ceiling didn't break in 2016. But every glass ceiling is held up by beams, columns, structures and supports. Fine, then. Little by little, women across the country will simply bring those down first.

Twitter: @petulad

Read more Petula Dvorak:

This woman was a silence breaker on harassment. And she was fired for it, she says.

My kids won't wear coats no matter how cold it is. And it's making me crazy.

Shopping while black: Why were five teens ejected from one of the East Coast's biggest malls?

The new D.C.: Outside an REI that sells tents, desperate people are living in them