CARSON CITY, Nev. — She didn’t plan to say it. Yvanna Cancela, a newly elected Democrat in the Nevada Senate, didn’t want to “sound crass.” But when a Republican colleague defended a century-old law requiring doctors to ask women seeking abortions whether they’re married, Cancela couldn’t help firing back.
“A man is not asked his marital status before he gets a vasectomy,” she countered — and the packed hearing room fell silent.
Since Nevada seated the nation’s first majority-female state legislature in January, the male old guard has been shaken up by the perspectives of female lawmakers. Bills prioritizing women’s health and safety have soared to the top of the agenda. Mounting reports of sexual harassment have led one male lawmaker to resign. And policy debates long dominated by men, including prison reform and gun safety, are yielding to female voices.
Cancela, 32, is part of the wave of women elected by both parties in November, many of them younger than 40. Today, women hold the majority with 23 seats in the Assembly and 10 in the Senate, or a combined 52 percent.
No other legislature has achieved that milestone in U.S. history. Only Colorado comes close, with women constituting 47 percent of its legislators. In Congress, just one in four lawmakers is a woman. And in Alabama, which just enacted an almost complete ban on abortion, women make up just 15 percent of lawmakers.
The female majority is having a huge effect: More than 17 pending bills deal with sexual assault, sex trafficking and sexual misconduct, with some measures aimed at making it easier to prosecute offenders. Bills to ban child marriage and examine the causes of maternal mortality are also on the docket.
“I can say with 100 percent certainty that we wouldn’t have had these conversations" a few years ago, said Assembly Majority Leader Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D). "None of these bills would have seen the light of day.”
Nevada didn’t reach this landmark by accident. A loosely coordinated campaign of political action groups and women’s rights organizations recruited and trained women such as Cancela, who became political director of the 57,000-member Culinary Workers Union before she turned 30. One of those organizations, Emerge Nevada, said it trained twice as many female candidates ahead of the 2018 midterm election as it had in the preceding 12 years.
Meanwhile, the election of President Trump in 2016 mobilized Democratic women nationwide, including in Nevada, where women already held 40 percent of statehouse seats.
Along with the gender shift has come a steady increase in racial diversity: Of 63 lawmakers in Nevada, 11 are African American, nine are Hispanic, one is Native American and one, Rochelle Thuy Nguyen (D), 41, is the legislature’s first Democratic female Asian American Pacific Islander.
The result may seem surprising in a state more often defined by the hypersexuality and neon-lit debauchery of the Las Vegas Strip. Until 2017, the legislature included an assemblyman who had briefly appeared as an extra in a film about women being kidnapped and forced to live naked in kennels, according to PolitiFact.
But that lawmaker, Stephen Silberkraus (R), 38, was defeated by a woman, Lesley Cohen (D), 48, who highlighted the film during her campaign. (Silberkraus told reporters that he had been unaware of the film’s sexual nature.) As a member of the Assembly, Cohen is leading a study on conditions for female sex workers in Nevada’s rural brothels, the nation’s only legal bordellos.
“Outsiders ask why and how Nevada — of all places — became first,” Cohen said. “But I say, why not Nevada? Why not everywhere?”
A culture change
Carson City is a tiny frontier town, cradled among the snow-capped Sierra Nevada. For decades in the statehouse, charges of sexual harassment often were shrugged off or belittled, and bills sponsored by women were sometimes mocked.
In 2015, Sen. Patricia Ann Spearman (D), now 64, said legislative leaders refused to schedule a hearing on her bill to promote pay equity for women. “The boys club was like, ‘Why do we need that?’ ” she said. “It was a very misogynistic session."
As recently as 2017, when the legislature approved a public referendum to repeal the "pink tax” on necessities such as tampons and diapers, one assemblyman argued against it, saying it would create a slippery slope.
“Can I add my jockstrap purchases to your list? You might argue it’s not a necessity, but I might beg to differ,” Jim Marchant (R) said at the time. Last November, voters agreed to repeal the tax — and replaced Marchant with a woman, Shea Backus (D).
Even now, female lawmakers in both parties say they receive anonymous phone calls from men commenting on their looks or threatening sexual violence. GOP women “share a lot of common ground and lived experiences with Democratic women,” said Assemblywoman Jill Tolles (R), 45.
Still, Nevada also has long history of female leadership. The first woman was elected to the legislature in 1918, before the U.S. Constitution guaranteed women the right to vote. And although the state has never elected a female governor, it has had at least four female lieutenant governors, the first appointed in 1962.
These days, a giant banner strung across Main Street advertises a hotline for victims of sexual harassment and assault. Set up two years ago, after state Sen. Mark Manendo (D), now 52, resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment, witness tampering and other misconduct, the hotline has been buzzing during the current legislative session.
Many women called with allegations of harassment against Assemblyman Michael Sprinkle (D), 51, who stepped down in March. In a statement announcing his resignation, Sprinkle said that he was “taking full responsibility for my actions,” would “continue to seek therapy,” and asked his accusers and family for forgiveness.
“There’s change in this building that is just this amazing story of transformation,” said Assemblywoman Heidi Swank (D), 51, who helped bring the allegations against Sprinkle to light. “And it really highlights the importance of the female majority being not just here, but finally being heard.”
Some female lawmakers say the old guard is literally dying. In November, voters in rural Nevada elected Republican Dennis Hof — a 72-year-old reality TV star and owner of several legal brothels, including the Love Ranch and the Moonlite Bunny Ranch — to the state Assembly. At the time, Hof had been dead for three weeks.
While many female lawmakers say they have found strong male allies this session, a few older men seem to be finding life in the minority difficult.
Democratic Assemblywoman Shannon Bilbray-Axelrod, 45, who keeps a “No Bulls--t Allowed” sign on her desk, said one assemblyman frequently asks, “Have you been a good girl today?”
“It’s so inappropriate on so many levels, and it’s that old guard trying to hang on,” she said. “Calling this out is the way you change the world.”
The assemblyman, co-Deputy Minority Leader John Ellison (R), 66, said he has “great respect” for Bilbray-Axelrod. After being contacted by The Washington Post, Ellison sent her a handwritten card asking her to “please accept my apology if I ever said anything offensive to you."
Bilbray-Axelrod said the moment shows that “there is hope for everyone.”
Historically, state legislatures have been “stubborn, slow-to-change institutions, which were heavily male-dominated,” said Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Although it’s notable that “one state has crossed into the 50-percent mark to represent women,” she said, “it’s probably a lot more significant that we have 49 legislatures left to go.”
A new generation, a new point of view
Assemblywoman Selena Torres (D) never expected to be here. The 23-year-old teacher who helps Hispanic students learn English said she was inspired to run when she heard Trump on TV saying “awful things about immigrants.”
“I think growing up, you have this idea that politicians aren’t us. They don’t look like me. They don’t have my type of hair. They don’t come from our background. They don’t have to send money back to El Salvador to make sure that their family can make ends meet,” Torres said. “But then you come to realize: That’s the problem.”
Torres signed up for workshops by Emerge Nevada, a national Democratic organization that recruits and trains female candidates. In the legislature, Torres said she has found a spirit of sisterhood.
Benitez-Thompson, 40, has mentored her and given her suits and blazers. She and some of the other women share apartments and joke that they could star in a fun but wonky reality show called “The Real World: Carson City.”
Meanwhile, the women are savoring their first legislative victories. Cancela, who has the logo of the culinary union tattooed across her rib cage, noted that the Senate recently passed her Trust Nevada Women’s Act, which would codify and update abortion rights. It’s now awaiting a vote in the assembly.
Cancela said she was nervous when she defended the measure with a reference to vasectomy that day in March. But she said she willed herself to summon the courage to disrupt the usual order.
“I wanted to be respectful,” she said. “But also make a point.”
Story by Emily Wax-Thibodeaux, photos by Melina Mara, design by Brianna Schroer, photo editing by Karly Domb Sadof, copy editing by Carrie Camillo.