Record-tying 35 women in new Iowa Legislature

Two women also in leadership posts

DES MOINES – Iowa voters are sending a record-tying number of women to the state Legislature next week.

The 25 women elected to the Iowa House and the 10 women who will serve in the Iowa Senate ties the record of 35 female legislators that was set in the 2009 session.

“Overall, 2012 turned out to be a very good year for women candidates,” said Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University.

Nationally, a record 98 women are serving in the 103rd U.S. Congress after an election that produced a record number of female candidates, Bystrom said. In Iowa, 60 percent of the 55 female legislative candidates won election and for the first time two women will hold top legislative leadership roles simultaneously – Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, as Iowa Senate President and Rep. Linda Upmeyer, R-Garner, as House majority leader, she added.

“When women run, they do win,” said Valerie Hennings, a scholar-in-residence at the Catt Center.

Sen. Amanda Ragan, D-Mason City, said there has been a more-concerted effort to recruit women to run for public office, especially at the local level. She added that women are good political organizers and often serve as the “backbone” of campaigns, which over time has led more to see themselves as candidates.

“I think they get a feeling that they can make a difference. Once you see that you can make a difference, you think, well, maybe there’s a larger universe that I can impact,” Ragan said. “They’ve seen the impacts on their families’ lives and want to make sure that they can be a part of that decision-making process. They know that they have things to offer and we try to do a lot more encouraging of people getting involved in actually running for office.”

In her experience as a state legislator, Ragan said she has observed that women often work effectively across party lines and make sure there is a solution at the end of the process.

“We know from research that women don’t have the same political ambition as men,” Bystrom said. “They differ in why they seek office. They see it more in terms of fixing a problem rather than a career move.”

Female candidates were aided in 2012 by the fact that it was a post-redistricting election with nearly half of the successful women running in legislative districts with an open seat, she noted.

House Democratic Leader Kevin McCarthy, D-Des Moines, whose caucus includes 19 women, said voters see female candidates as a “breath of fresh air” which causes excitement as a break from “the same old same old.” He said his 46-member caucus best reflects a cross section of Iowa with all five minority lawmakers and the most women, adding “I expect that will continue to grow” in future elections.

Iowa's experience mirrors national trends, according to a survey by the National Conference of State Legislators, which indicated 2013 will see 1,778 women legislators serving across the country. Women hold 24.1 percent of legislative seats in the 50 states, slightly topping Iowa 23.2 percent ratio. New Hampshire has the highest number of female legislators with 140 of 424 lawmakers, while Colorado has the highest percentage with 42 women of 100 legislators.

Bystrom said it’s important to have Upmeyer and Jochum in leadership positions because they represent role models for other women that will help break down barriers. She noted that New Hampshire once was in the same category as Iowa having never elected a woman to Congress or as governor, but ended that by electing Jeanne Shaheen governor in 1996 and progressively became the first state ever to have an all-female delegation in Congress and also have a woman governor in 2012.

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