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Virginia’s Year of the Woman produces historic package of liberal legislation

Then-minority leader Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax), left, chats with Rep. Charniele L. Herring (D-Alexandria) during the 2019 General Assembly session. The two women are now House speaker and majority leader, respectively.
Then-minority leader Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax), left, chats with Rep. Charniele L. Herring (D-Alexandria) during the 2019 General Assembly session. The two women are now House speaker and majority leader, respectively. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

When Virginia’s first female speaker of the House of Delegates asks the chamber’s first female clerk to read an amendment or call the roll for a vote, she says “please.”

The man who previously served as speaker, arguably the second-most powerful state office after governor, didn’t use the pleasantry for such requests.

Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn’s routine is one small sign of what legislators and other observers say is a more inclusive, consensus-oriented style that she and other newly ascendant women in the General Assembly have brought to the legislature.

But don’t mistake a courteous habit for any lack of effectiveness. In the session scheduled to end Saturday, Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) and her sister lawmakers have helped drive passage of the most ambitious, far-reaching package of liberal legislation of any session in memory.

In many ways, 2020 has been the Year of the Woman in Richmond. The legislature approved the federal Equal Rights Amendment. It rolled back restrictions on abortion. It passed bills to combat sex discrimination and harassment in the workplace, to protect pregnant women and newborns, and to require schools to provide tampons or pads for menstruating girls.

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The tidal wave of progressive measures includes legislation on other topics as well. With Democrats controlling both the House and Senate for the first time in a generation, there have been enough groundbreaking bills to proclaim 2020 the year of gun control, of transportation, of immigrants’ rights or labor. The session also saw major advances in the role of African Americans in the legislature.

Still, the dramatic increase in the number of women in authority, as well as a new focus on issues of importance to women, has been striking.

This year’s General Assembly has a record 41 female legislators — 30 delegates and 11 senators.

Filler-Corn and House Clerk Suzette Denslow aren’t the only two breaking the glass ceiling. House Majority Leader Charniele L. Herring (D-Alexandria) and Senate President Pro Tempore L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) are the first females and first African Americans to hold their positions.

Women chair seven of 14 committees in the House and four out of 11 in the Senate. Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax) leads her chamber’s most powerful committee, the appropriations and finance panel.

Legislators and analysts of both sexes said the expanded female presence affected the kinds of bills that were proposed and passed, as well as transforming the picture that the General Assembly presented to the public. At the start of the session, the House revised language in its rules to refer to people in the feminine gender — “she” instead of “he,” and “her” instead of “him.”

“Because we have increased numbers of female lawmakers, we have been getting a lot of family-oriented bills, bills that would support women in the workforce, and they’re getting through,” said Sen. Barbara A. Favola (D-Arlington).

She noted that passage of a bill to increase the minimum wage would have a disproportionate impact on women, because it’s estimated that more than two-thirds of minimum-wage workers are female.

Del. Kenneth R. Plum (D-Fairfax) said of the new gender diversity: “On equal rights, it brings a perspective that men can’t speak for.” Plum, who has served 40 years in the legislature, added, “In my experience, I can’t remember a time when so much consequential legislation passed.”

Del. Danica A. Roem (D-Prince William) described the benefit of testifying before a five-person subcommittee that included four women, when she advocated for bills to ensure students who owe school lunch debt would still get full, hot meals.

“It was so refreshing to present those in front of women who just get it,” Roem said. “When you’ve got a lot of moms running the show in Richmond, it’s not that hard to explain [the need].”

Longtime Richmond political observer Bob Holsworth noted that Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond) sponsored a bill to bar health insurers from requiring prior authorization before transferring a newborn experiencing a life-threatening emergency condition from one hospital to another.

“What man would have thought of this one?” Holsworth said.

‘Absolutely fundamental’: How women have emerged as a force in Virginia politics.

Filler-Corn and others said there’s been much discussion of the change in having a woman presiding over the House for the first time, and interacting with the first female clerk.

“I’ve heard from countless people, looking up on the dais, it looks and feels so different,” Filler-Corn said.

She said she doesn’t think about it every day, but is aware of the need to set a good example as the first woman in the job.

“On one hand, it’s kind of shocking that it’s taken 400 years,” Filler-Corn said. “It’s certainly a huge responsibility in the sense that you’re really setting the stage for many young women and girls moving forward.”

Filler-Corn, elected to the legislature in 2010, served less time as a lawmaker than previous speakers before winning the top job. But she had experience in politics and administration, having served as director of intergovernmental affairs for two past Democratic governors: Mark Warner and Tim Kaine.

At the start of the session, House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (Shenandoah) and other Republicans appeared to try to intimidate her with numerous complaints and parliamentary objections. They abandoned that effort when it didn’t faze the Democrat.

“I think they realized I wasn’t flappable,” Filler-Corn said. “They realized that, based on my reactions and moving forward, that I was a quick study, and Suzette and I were on top of things.”

Gilbert’s office did not respond to emails requesting comment.

“What I really like about Eileen and Charniele and the committee chairs is a far more inclusive approach,” Del. Vivian E. Watts (D-Fairfax) said. “Women tend to be peer-oriented consensus builders. Men tend to have more of the World War II-style, pyramid authority structure.”

But Filler-Corn has not hesitated to impose her will. She steamrolled Republicans when she didn’t want to prolong debate. She sided with African Americans and the progressive wing of her caucus, reversing the Democrats’ previous position, by effectively killing a House proposal for a constitutional amendment to create a bipartisan redistricting committee.

While she and others made history this year, one glass ceiling remains intact. Virginia is one of 20 states, including Maryland, that have never had a female governor.