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Women who made history in recent elections are changing Virginia House

Del. Kathy Tran (D-Fairfax) holds daughter Elise during Tran’s swearing-in ceremony at the Virginia General Assembly.
Del. Kathy Tran (D-Fairfax) holds daughter Elise during Tran’s swearing-in ceremony at the Virginia General Assembly. (Timothy C. Wright/For The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — Judging strictly by legislation passed, the record number of women in this year’s Virginia House of Delegates had only modest impact.

Most of the new delegates are Democrats, and most of their bills died in Republican-controlled committees — which is typical for freshmen, male or female.

But House members said that the presence of a historic number of women in the chamber created a fundamental shift in matters large and small, from the tone of debate to the way the House operates.

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Two female delegates, for instance — one Republican, one Democrat — clashed over how to create a sexual harassment policy. They disagreed on approach, but the result was the House’s first-ever requirement for a training program to prevent harassment.

Female delegates led the calls for gun control after the school shooting last month in Parkland, Fla. They had no luck on gun bills, but Speaker M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights) eventually appointed a rare select committee to address school safety — though only three of the 21 members are women.

It was a Virginia woman — Del. Elizabeth Guzman (D-Prince William) — who was selected by national Democrats to give the Spanish-language response to President Trump’s State of the Union address.

And some members credited the greater presence of women with influencing the issues that did not come up this year. Most notably, few abortion-related bills made it to the House floor.

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That’s partly because Del. Danica Roem (D-Prince William) replaced one of the House’s most ardent abortion opponents, ­Robert G. Marshall. And Roem, who is also Virginia’s first transgender lawmaker, said the women have only begun to reshape the legislature.

“My goal is 51 percent women,” Roem said. “Then I think you’d fundamentally change the culture. You will have a collaborative legislative process beyond anything in the last 399 years.”

Women made huge gains in Virginia’s House in last fall’s elections. Twelve women joined the chamber, all replacing men and bringing the total to an all-time high of 28 out of 100 seats. All but one of the 12 women were Democrats who flipped Republican seats, bringing their party within a hair of a majority for the first time in years.

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While many saw their bills founder in committee, a few measures carried by freshman women got through both the House and the Senate. Elementary school pupils will get more time for recess, foster parents and close relatives won’t have to wait so long to adopt children, and income-tax preparers will have to notify the state right away if they detect a data breach — all thanks to newly elected women.

“Because there are more women there are different perspectives and thoughts when we’re talking about bills, and just real-life [ideas about] how something will affect somebody,” said Del. Charniele L. Herring (D-Alexandria), who chairs the Democratic caucus and is the first woman to hold such a position.

For Del. Vivian E. Watts (D-Fairfax), who with 26 years in office is the longest-serving female House member, suddenly having so many more female colleagues has been liberating.

“I was genuinely surprised that there was a certain freedom in my own expression,” Watts said. “Over the years, having come in as I did when there were so few women, you were very careful about what you said. . . . Whereas now there’s more shared experience, that these things have context.”

During the floor debate over sexual harassment training, Watts alluded to her own painful experience of abuse, something she had long resisted talking about.

But more than tone has changed. When Watts first joined the House, women were shut out of informal socializing and dealmaking because the members’ lounge was attached to the men’s restroom.

At one point, she remembered, free oysters were being served in the lounge and a delegate asked whether she wanted some. She didn’t want the oysters but she did want access to that lounge, so she said yes. But instead of inviting her in, the male delegate set a plate outside the door — like feeding a kitten, she said.

Now, new delegates Jennifer Carroll Foy (D-Prince William) and Kathy Tran (D-Fairfax) have taken the initiative to start an informal “parents’ caucus” to help members — male or female — deal with the tricky issues of raising young children while serving in the legislature. They have worked with Del. Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) to compile lists of family activities in Richmond and places for day care.

“Hopefully there’ll be another wave of women who have children and this would . . . actually encourage them to run knowing that we have a family-friendly atmosphere here,” said Foy, a public defender who has taken a high profile in criminal-justice reform issues.

She and Tran worked with the House clerk’s office to make arrangements for nursing mothers — both have small children — and to ensure that the office building under construction for the General Assembly will have nursing rooms and restrooms with diaper-change tables.

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The new tone has been noted by the GOP leadership. Cox kicked off the session by announcing that he would extend generous family leave policies to the House of Delegates staff. And Del. S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said he welcomes the perspectives of additional women in the chamber.

“I’ve had good interactions with the new members,” he said. “They’re passionate about their legislation, but they’re willing to listen and learn about the process, which is what we all do as freshman.”

But change only goes so far. Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler (D-Virginia Beach) introduced a resolution to recognize the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision affirming the right to have an abortion as a “Day of Women” instead of “Day of Tears” — the name chosen by the legislature last year.

Her bill never made it out of committee.