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More women than men serve in Nevada’s state legislature. How did that happen?

When women run for office, they win at the same rates that men do. The key is encouraging them to run.

Nevada Assembly Majority Leader Rep. Teresa Benitez-Thompson shakes hands with a retired assemblywoman at the Nevada State Legislature in Carson City, Nev., on April 2, 2019. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

What do women want? Certainly, a great many of them want child care and other support for working families. But should President Biden’s Build Back Better package pass the Senate, its child-care assistance would take effect only where states accept it. Meanwhile, recent Supreme Court oral arguments suggest that Roe v. Wade’s abortion protections may soon weaken or fall. Some states’ legislatures are working to protect abortion rights, while others are working to revoke them.

On policies like these — and many others that intimately touch women’s lives — having women serving in these 50 legislatures will make a difference for millions of their constituents. Female legislators tend to focus more on policy issues related to health, welfare and children than men do. What’s more, female legislators tend to be more successful than their male counterparts at passing legislation.

And yet women still only make up a total of 31.1 percent of all state legislators in the United States, outnumbered by men in almost every chamber.

The exception: Nevada, the first and only state legislature where women outnumber men in both chambers. Its lower house first became majority-female in 2019, after a county commission appointed two women to fill open seats. That female majority actually increased in 2020, when seven districts flipped from male to female while only three flipped from female to male. Today women fill more than 60 percent of Nevada’s legislative seats, up from 33 percent in 2015. And more women have taken leadership positions, in proportion to their seats.

Research finds that when women run for office, they’re just as likely to win as are men — but they’re less likely to run.

So how did women come to predominate in the Nevada legislature? More women ran for those seats.

Why Nevada, and why now?

Nevada is one of 15 states with legislative term limits, which means seats regularly come “open” as incumbents hit their term limits. Women are more likely to run for an open seat than against an incumbent and are more willing to run in a term-limited state, research has found.

In addition to the guaranteed open seats, the Nevada legislature, with help from national organizations, has been focusing on recruiting women to run. Current female legislators, a new women’s caucus and organizations like Emerge Nevada and Vote Run Lead have all helped encourage women to run while offering campaign support. For example, Emerge Nevada offers candidate training to help women seek and win office. As a result, in 2020, more Nevada women ran for both the Assembly and Senate than did men.

But term limits are two-edged: They may encourage women to run for office, but they also force women out. Legislators may serve no longer than 12 years in a single chamber. As a result, by the mid-2030s, all the women now serving in the Nevada legislature will have left their current positions. Women in Nevada can only maintain a legislative majority by actively recruiting more female candidates.

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What makes a difference?

If women’s advocates in other states wish to replicate the Nevada majority, they may wish to consider several steps. First, political parties, national women’s organizations or female legislators can encourage women to run for open seats. Women are more willing to run if they wait out an incumbent and pursue an open seat than if they have to challenge that incumbent. In the 2020 Nevada election, female candidates won 11 of the 14 open legislative seats. Out of the three men who won the other open seats, two ran against other men and only one defeated a female candidate. This example reinforces the idea that when women run, they win.

Second, group associations matter. Anyone looking to elect women may wish to encourage women who are already members of civic or advocacy groups. Women need more encouragement to run for office than men, and having group backing helps them feel confident enough to run. Elected female officials are more likely than men to say that encouragement made a difference when they were deciding to run.

But encouraging women to run is only the beginning; women must also be encouraged to continue to hold office once they are there. Women look for more support — from outside groups and from colleagues — during both candidacy and service. Women in the legislature are more likely to attend and rely on trainings, seminars and support groups to feel more confident in their abilities. In-service training and networking helps.

In Nevada, female lawmakers created the first bipartisan women’s caucus to encourage one another and to put women, not party, first. Its founding member, then-senator Patricia Farley, a Republican turned independent, wanted to downplay partisan differences so that no one felt excluded or unwelcome. This kind of peer support can encourage women to stay in office — and is part of the reason that the current Nevada Senate majority leader and House majority floor leader are both women. Having those successful models further encourages other women to continue to serve.

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Finally, not all legislators have the same career aspirations. Term limits may help encourage a more diverse set of candidates seek and hold office, without implying that they should remain there for their entire careers. Shorter tenures of service in elected positions may encourage women to serve for even a short time.

To be sure, women don’t all agree on policy; Republican and Democratic female officeholders may oppose one another’s initiatives. For instance, Republican women are some of the most active proponents of banning abortion. But women make up more than 50 percent of the U.S. population; having more women in office may help represent their interests.

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Noah Haynes is a political science student and research assistant at Arkansas State University.

Jordan Butcher (@jordanmbutcher) is an assistant professor of political science at Arkansas State University whose research centers on state legislative politics.

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