The corridors of the gold-domed state capitol here are lined with busts and portraits showing what political power used to look like in Colorado. Nearly without exception, the figures depicted in that artwork are male.
But step onto the floor of the Colorado House, and you’ll see something entirely different. In the current legislative session, more than half of the state representatives — 34 out of 65 — are women. Seven of the 11 House committees are chaired by women.
Only once before and only briefly has any legislature in the country experienced a female majority in even one of its chambers. It happened in New Hampshire, where women held 13 out of 24 seats in the state Senate during the 2009-2010 session.
This is not just the aftereffect of the 2018 election, which saw record numbers of women running for office. Colorado’s groundswell for more female representation has been building for years, fueled by organizations such as the state chapter of Emerge America, which operates a sort of boot camp for women interested in running at the state and local level.
Kathleen Collins “KC” Becker, who got her start on the Boulder City Council, is the third woman in a row to serve as House speaker. “We very diligently recruit women, and train women to run, and hire women as campaign managers,” she said in an interview in her offices just off the chamber. “And so, all of this is intentional. It didn’t just happen that way.”
This year has also seen a record number of women in Colorado’s state Senate, 13 out of a membership of 35. Well over half the agency heads appointed by its new governor, Jared Polis (D), are female.
As in the U.S. Congress, all of this is almost exclusively a Democratic phenomenon. Where the number of Democratic women in the Colorado legislature has grown by nearly half since its last session, the number of female Republicans has remained the same.
So what difference does it make when women gain power? On the day I visited the Colorado capitol, a Senate committee passed legislation to create an insurance fund that would offer 12 weeks of paid leave to care for a newborn or deal with family emergencies — the latest version of a measure that has failed at least four times in the past.
That same afternoon, the House Education Committee, chaired by former teacher Barbara McLachlan, unanimously approved legislation requiring the state to fund full-day kindergarten. A Republican legislator on the panel, retired school superintendent James D. Wilson, has been trying without success since 2014 to pass such a bill, and this session, he thinks it will succeed.
Just a coincidence? Maybe. But polling has shown women in the United States are significantly more likely than men to say that climate change is a serious problem, that it will affect them personally and that major lifestyle changes are needed to combat it.
Some of the shift has been in the culture of the place. Nursing mothers used to have to retreat to a bathroom in the capitol basement; now there is a room set aside for them. When I ran into freshman state Sen. Jessie Danielson visiting her former House colleagues on the floor, she had her toddler, Isabelle, on her hip.
All of this follows a political earthquake last year. For the first time in more than a century, the legislature expelled one of its own. Democratic Rep. Steve Lebsock was ousted on a 52-to-9 vote after five women, led by fellow legislator Faith Winter, lodged complaints of sexual harassment against him. Winter was subsequently elected to the Senate, helping to flip it to Democratic control.
Then again, not everything has changed.
Becker says that when she and Majority Leader Alec Garnett enter a room, people who do not know them still sometimes assume that Garnett — who stands about 6-foot-4, while she is barely 5 feet tall — is the one in charge.
And a male legislator, thinking he was being helpful, suggested several times that she let him do the negotiating with the oil industry over recent legislation giving local governments more say over where drilling takes place, and prioritizing health and safety concerns.
“Being a white guy,” she recalls him telling her, “it may just be easier for them to work with me, because we have that in common and so we might just relate better.”
“No,” the speaker responded, “I’m doing just fine.”
She did it her way, pushing through a bill that outraged the state’s most powerful industry, but easily cleared the House on a 36-to-28 vote. Because power looks different these days in Colorado, even if not everyone has figured that out.