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Women hit a record high in Virginia legislature. Can they break the boys’ club?

Del. Kathy Tran (D-Fairfax) holds her daughter Elise during her swearing-in ceremony at the Virginia General Assembly on Wednesday morning. Tran is among the 28 women now serving in the chamber, a record high. (Timothy C. Wright for the Washington Post.)

RICHMOND — Newly minted Del. Kathy Tran (D-Fairfax) sat in the House of Delegates, nursing her 1-year-old daughter in the storied chamber long dominated by men.

In the row ahead of her, fellow newcomer Del. Hala Ayala (D-Prince William) sported a purse-shaped American flag lapel pin and a bracelet honoring the Equal Rights Amendment.

And the next day, female lawmakers outnumbered men at a Democratic news conference urging the expansion of Medicaid.

Women have reached a high mark in the Virginia General Assembly this year, taking 38 out of 140 seats and starting to reshape the culture of a Southern capital often seen as an old boys' club.

The surge was part of November's Democratic sweep in the House of Delegates that flipped 15 seats, replacing 11 men with women. Women now hold a record 28 of 100 seats in the chamber, up from 17 last year. They make up nearly half of the Democratic caucus.

Meet the freshman class of the Virginia House that’s making history

Among them are the first Latinas, the first transgender woman, the first lesbian and the first Asian American women to be elected to the chamber. Republicans seated their youngest-ever woman, 33-year-old Emily Brewer.

"We didn't crack the ceiling; we shattered it," Del. Vivian E. Watts (D-Fairfax), the longest-serving woman in the House, said in a Thursday floor speech commemorating the history of women in the legislature.

The achievement in Virginia may be the start of something greater, as a record number of women around the country run for governor and Congress this year.

Many are Democrats invigorated by Hillary Clinton, who would have been the first female president, and her loss to President Trump despite his history of lewd and disparaging comments about women, among others.

"We know that Virginia will be the first of many states to elect a record number of women this cycle," said Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily's List, which supports Democratic women. "While 28 percent is not nearly a high enough percentage of women, this is how true institutional change begins."

Advocates are hoping this new crop of women in Richmond can change the discussion on an array of issues, including paid family leave, abortion rights and taxes on tampons.

Gov.-elect Ralph Northam (D) has named eight women to his 15-member Cabinet, which his office says would be the first time in Virginia history that the governor's inner circle is majority female.

Ralph Northam says his majority-female cabinet will be a Virginia first

But men still dominate positions of power. In addition to Northam, the other two statewide elected officials are male, as are the state's two U.S. senators and its legislative leaders. Just two of 25 committees in both chambers are chaired by women.

"Women are the majority of the population in Virginia. At some point, I'm hopeful we will be majority in this room," said Del. Elizabeth Guzman (D-Prince William), whom Democratic freshmen chose as their representative to leadership. "This is just the start."

Newly installed Speaker M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights) made overtures to women with an open letter warning of zero tolerance for sexual harassment and a plan to provide paid family leave to legislative staff.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Cox said he would work to recruit high-caliber female candidates and welcomed the rise of women in Richmond.

"That's a great thing; that's a good thing," said Cox, flanked by the three men in his leadership team. "That's why we are really trying to promote making sure we have a culture down here that's welcoming."

Watts, 77, said the legislature's culture has changed since she was one of four women elected to the House in 1982 — then a record.

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)

She recalled times when women were barred from a legislative lounge, needed permission to wear pants on the floor and missed votes because of the long trek to the women's bathroom.

Even now, Watts said, women will find their ideas gaining more traction when repeated by a man or be shut out of after-hours socializing where male lawmakers bond and build relationships.

One of the ways newly elected women are trying to change the culture is by forming a "parents caucus" to make the legislature more friendly to parents.

From 2002: Women describe culture of sexual harassment in Richmond

Incoming first lady Pam Northam reached out to new delegates Tran and Jennifer Carroll Foy, a Prince William Democrat who prematurely gave birth to twins during her campaign, about the lack of dedicated spaces where they could pump breast milk and nurse. Together, they worked with House Clerk G. Paul Nardo to establish two lactation rooms.

The parents caucus also secured a child-care room where they could leave their babies during Saturday's gubernatorial inauguration. The ultimate goal is for the legislature to provide child care during the session.

"Our whole purpose is to make the General Assembly more family friendly to hopefully attract and more easily recruit women to run for office," Foy said. "We just want to improve the lives of all parents, and especially working and nursing mothers, as well."

Tran, who canvassed for votes with her daughter Elise strapped to her chest, has turned heads in the Capitol by bringing the child along to orientation events and the first day of the session. She breast-fed her daughter, with a cover, during outgoing Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe's final State of the Commonwealth address.

During most days of the legislative session, Tran, who also has three school-age children, plans to drop her baby at a Richmond day care. But she wanted to make sure she could spend her mornings and evenings with her.

"Occasionally, I get people saying, 'Well, how are you going to do this with all these kids?' " Tran said in an interview at her legislative office, where she had a playpen next to her desk and a pile of bibs and blankets on a chair. "I try to always say, it's hard for any mom or dad trying to give their all to their kids and careers."

More mothers of young children are running for office

Advocates are hoping the women in Virginia's legislature will help the state pass the long dormant Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The movement for an amendment, which would bar government discrimination on the basis of gender, stalled in the early 1980s.

Under one disputed theory, it could still pass if Virginia and another state legislature approve it.

Although ratification measures have passed the Virginia Senate, they have died in committee in the House. With Republican majorities thinned and female ranks boosted, advocates hope the House will finally act.

That includes some Republican women. "It's exciting to have a whole new perspective on things, and women and men don't always agree," said Del. Roxann Robinson (R-Chesterfield), a co-sponsor of the House Equal Rights Amendment bill.

Some new female lawmakers are looking to make their mark with symbolic gestures.

Del. Kelly Fowler (D-Virginia Beach) ran in part because she was angry when her then-representative voted for a resolution establishing a "Day of Tears" on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court's decision legalizing abortion.

She ran against him and won. And one of her first pieces of legislation, with new Del. Debra Rodman (D-Henrico), is a resolution that would replace the "Day of Tears" with the "Day of Women in Virginia."

It would celebrate the record number of women serving in the House and resolve "That all Virginians be encourage to celebrate women in leadership."

Every Democratic freshman woman has signed on.

Read more:

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