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October 15, 2019

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Nevada’s majority-female legislature changing the conversation


Ryan Tarinelli / AP

Assembly members gather before the Nevada Assembly in Carson City, Monday, Feb. 4, 2019. The Legislature began its session Monday as the first overall female majority legislature in U.S. history.

CARSON CITY — In just days, the first majority-female state legislature in the nation will come to an end and be written as another chapter in the history of Nevada.

After the 2018 elections—and some resignations—there are 23 women in the 42-member Assembly and 10 in the 21-member state Senate. Their 2019 session has seen proposed legislation that includes abortion decriminalization, sex-worker safety measures and establishment of a board to review maternal mortality issues, all introduced by women.

State Sen. Yvanna Cancela, D-Las Vegas, was elected for the first time in 2018. A past union worker and the daughter of Cuban immigrants, Cancela introduced the Trust Nevada Women Act, which would liberalize the state’s abortion laws at a time in which states—mostly in the South—are cracking down on abortion.

She called the bill an extension of Nevadans’ belief that lawmakers shouldn’t regulate women’s bodies.

“Following the 2016 election, it was clear that women’s reproductive freedoms were going to be under attack,” she said, drawing attention to the abortion crackdowns happening in states such as Missouri, Alabama and Georgia.

She said conversations around legislation have benefited from having more women in the room, as they may have different ways of thinking about proposed laws than their male counterparts.

Assistant Senate Majority Leader Julia Ratti, D-Sparks, agreed and also used the abortion laws being debated in other states as an example. “The contrast is—you just can’t help but notice,” she said. “Certainly having that female majority made a difference.”

State Sen. Melanie Scheible, D-Las Vegas, said that while a majority-female legislature may not sponsor completely different legislation than a majority-male one, the conversations around the topics could change. She touted the Legislature’s action this session on issues such as criminal justice reform and gun background checks.

“I think a good example is when we’re talking about health care,” Scheible said. “Everybody cares about having access to affordable health care, and when you have more women in the room … people are more willing to talk about contraceptives and mammograms and screening for breast cancer. Not because men aren’t aware of them or don’t think of them, it just kind of changes the tone of the conversation.”

Scheible said stereotypical assumptions around who has what jobs—men as legislators, women as assistants—are breaking down.

“What’s been really rewarding is seeing how the next generation of leaders coming up behind us is going to be used to something completely different,” she said.

Experts and analysts say the effect of representation could make other women run for office, and the female legislators say they’re proud of what they’ve accomplished so far.

Assembly Majority Floor Leader Teresa Benitez-Thompson, D-Reno, says the more diverse the Legislature, the better the public body is because of increased representation of various demographic groups.

“We need to mirror the public, and Nevada’s public face is changing very much, and so I expect that the Legislature would, too,” she said.

Scheible had a quick piece of advice for women or girls who want to run for public office: “Do it.”

Benitez-Thompson touted female lawmakers’ pushes on issues such as maternal health that in the past may not have been discussed as much.

“We’ve got legislation that I am very proud of,” she said. “I think we’ve got legislation as a whole coming from the senators and the assemblywomen that is very much talking about community need and talking about social change, and I don’t think I’ve always seen that before in the Legislature.”

Jean Sinzdak, associate director of the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University, said research on women in politics has shown that women tend to bring up certain issues—pushing transparency in government, including marginalized groups in discussions, reaching across the aisle to build consensus. But there’s still more to do, she said, in ensuring women have equal representation.

“If you look at the history of our country, it’s been a slow climb, and we’re still nowhere near parity,” she said.

Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, D-Las Vegas, said a continued push for representation was paramount to the Nevada Democratic Party going forward.

“Ultimately, more than half of the country’s population is made up of women. I’m hopeful that we will see more state legislatures become reflective of the communities they represent,” Cannizzaro said. “It will certainly remain a priority for this caucus to continue to recruit and elect candidates who are representative of the communities they serve. I very much believe that’s the way the best policies get made.”

Cannizzaro said the dichotomy between the Nevada Legislature and legislatures with smaller numbers of women serving can be seen in the priorities being brought up. She pointed to the Trust Nevada Women Act as an example.

“The bill sends a clear message to Nevada women that we trust them to make their own decisions about what is right for them and that, at a time when many women are feeling anxious about things happening at the federal level, we support a woman’s right to choose,” she said.

Ratti said that, generally, she and her colleagues have tried to keep their focus on work. But, “there have been key moments through the session where something happened that made me pause and reflect” about being in the first majority-female state legislature in American history, she said.

Asked if it was surprising that Nevada had the first majority-female legislature, all of the women interviewed were quick to say no.

Sinzdak said the frontier spirit and lifestyle of the West may have created a political environment in which it was more socially acceptable for women to enter politics. On the frontier, all hands were on deck, after all.

“The culture of the West is much more free-spirited and open,” Sinzdak said.

Assemblywoman Alexis Hansen, R-Sparks, said there had always been a culture of women involvement in Nevada—such as on county commissions and school boards.

“In a way, I feel a little guilty that we, in the Legislature, get all the attention when really so much of the work that has gone on in the state in other levels of government has been [through] women in some of those rural districts, and even in the urban districts,” she said.

Benitez-Thompson said she was surprised, to an extent, that Nevada was the first state to have a majority-female legislature, because of what she called a sometimes “paradoxical” electorate, making reference to the fact that the Legislature’s chambers see their majority flip control on a semi-regular basis.

“In some ways, it’s not surprising and in other ways, it’s very surprising. I think we’re kind of our own. … Nevada doesn’t necessarily seem to play by the rules of logic sometimes,” she said.

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.