When the Minnesota House convenes in January, its members will have made history before considering a single bill.
Among the 134 members of the Legislature’s lower house are 48 women, the largest number in history. Nearly half of the 23 new members of the House are women — three of them Republicans and eight DFLers.
But while legislators from both parties say they are pleased with the milestone for women in the House, they’re also concerned with a very different kind of trend happening in the Senate. Next year, it will have just 16 women in its 67-member ranks, the lowest number of women in the Senate since 1991. Overall, the number of women serving in the Legislature will drop from 68 to 64, continuing a steady decline since the number of women lawmakers peaked at 70 nearly a decade ago.
As they prepare for the start of a new legislative session, both rookie and veteran female lawmakers said they’re well aware of the gender gap in state politics — and hopeful that their work at the Capitol will continue to pave the way for future female legislators. In the meantime, while men still dominate both houses at the Capitol, some of the women said they see themselves as an answer to voters’ frustration about slow progress in state government.
“We know when women are part of the process, things get done and get done well,” said Erin Maye Quade, DFL-Apple Valley, an incoming member of the House. “People are sick of the gridlock, of not getting things done, and to that I say: ‘We need more women.’ ”
It is not clear what is behind the recent decline of women in the Legislature, but the drop-off in the Senate has been particularly steep. Through the 1990s and early 2000s, the number of women serving there had been steadily on the rise, peaking at 27 women between 2007 and 2010. But by the last legislative session, there were just 23 women — and then nearly a third of them decided to leave. Then, in November, it wasn’t a case of Senate women losing their seats to men — they just weren’t running. Of the 12 senators who did not seek re-election, seven were women. And of the eight incumbents who lost their seats, only one was a woman.
Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, said convincing potential candidates that serving at the Capitol is a good fit for their career and their family can be a challenge for both men and women. But she said the downward trend of women running and staying in office indicates that more work is needed.
“We’ve got to figure out what’s keeping them from running,” she said. “It could very well be family things, it could be they’re doing very well in their career and they might not want to lose that momentum. … It’s unfortunate that women don’t run, because they’re important to the process.”
Rep. Carolyn Laine, DFL-Columbia Heights, served in the House for a decade before running for — and winning — a Senate seat in November’s election. Last week, when she showed up in St. Paul for an orientation meeting for new senators and began introducing herself to her new colleagues, she realized her victory was a particularly notable one. Of the 21 new senators headed to the Capitol next year, she is the only woman.
Laine said her experience in the House was of a place that is increasingly open the ideas and thoughts of all its members. But she said the Senate has retained a “macho” feel — a place that seems to come with its own rules and air of superiority that make it less welcoming.
“Even though the Senate disses the House for being more raucous, the Senate is less collaborative,” she said. “That could make people not want to bother.”
Some lawmakers said they’ve found that women are less likely to run for office, or that they wait longer to do so, because they often consider themselves unqualified. Another incoming member of the House, Erin Koegel, DFL-Spring Lake Park, said she hadn’t considered going into politics until she was encouraged to do so by another legislator. At an orientation for new House members, she had a very different experience to Laine’s meeting with new senators — and it left her feeling optimistic.
“The thing that was encouraging to me when we had orientation was the number of women there, from both parties,” she said. “It made me feel a little more comfortable as a freshman, to stand up and have my voice be heard.”
Regina Barr, R-Inver Grove Heights, a newly elected member of the House, said she’s spent much of her career in business encouraging women to become leaders and is proud to be part of the largest-ever group of women headed to the House.
“I think as a woman, we bring a different perspective to how we look at things, and how we make decisions,” she said, “which is really important.”
Once they get to the Capitol, some of the new lawmakers said they’ll be watching to see what could be keeping their numbers from growing. When she was deciding to run for office, Maye-Quade said she took note of the number of women stepping down — and it left her with some questions.
“There were a lot of women retiring this year,” she said, “and I wanted to call them and say: ‘Is there something I should know?”