Across the country, more and more women are running for elected office - at the local, state and national level. But in the south, women’s representation lags behind the rest of the country.
Women make up about 15 percent of Louisiana’s legislature. That’s the third lowest percentage in the nation, according to 2018 data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“There are a variety of potential consequences for that," says Mirya Holman, associate professor of political science at Tulane University. Holman says female lawmakers are more likely to promote policies that impact children and families.
“We can think about things like domestic violence legislation, for example. We know that women in elected office are more likely to consider that an important policy issue and pursue policy solutions to domestic violence problems," Holman says.
And the fewer women in state legislatures, the less likely it is those policies are taken up, she says.
While Louisiana may have one of the lowest rates of female legislators in the nation, it does have a women’s caucus - something Holman says not many states can claim. “Having a bipartisan women’s caucus within the state legislature that allows women from both houses and both parties to work together, develop trust, learn each other’s patterns," Holman says.
“The goal of the caucus is to actually promote women in the Legislature and women’s issues for the state of Louisiana," says Senator Beth Mizell (R-Franklinton), who serves as caucus chair.
Recently, Louisiana has started seeing the emergence of groups specifically focused on electing women to political office. Senator Mizell says there’s a benefit to more women joining the Legislature, "So that we’re not just this rare minority that is - I don’t want to say we’re pacified - but sometimes we are seen as a segment rather than - the majority of the state are women.”
51% of Louisiana’s population is female, according to 2017 US census estimates.
“I think the more of a voice we can have representing the majority of the state, the better off both legislative sides would be," says Mizell.
At a time when the Legislature appears more politically divided than ever, Mirya Holman says it’s women who can help bridge the gap. “There have been studies that have been done that show that women are expected to be very compromising - so women are generally socialized to have stronger interpersonal skills - there’s the gender stereotype that women in elected office will work well with others, they’ll reach across the aisle," she says.
Sometimes, Holman says that can be seen as a disadvantage for female lawmakers. “That’s not often what a party wants - parties want people who are super loyal to them, people who will toe the party line.”
But an LSU survey earlier this year showed 60% of Louisianans want their elected officials to work with other parties. And women proved integral to doing just that in this year’s slew of special legislative sessions. It was Representative Paula Davis (R-Baton Rouge) who carried the compromise sales tax bill in June - avoiding devastating budget cuts throughout Louisiana.
“I wasn’t gonna give up, I wasn’t just gonna throw my hands in the air and say there’s no hope, and allow a $500 million deficit to occur," Rep Davis says.
Just as Davis was presenting the bill for final passage, the compromise was nearly jeopardized. Representative Raymond Crews tried to attach an amendment, threatening the success of the deal at the last minute.
Davis stood her ground. “I said no - do not do this, we have compromised, we have worked so hard.”
She says in that moment, people probably saw a different side to her. “They don’t normally see that very strong-willed and hard-headed Paula Davis - they see the bubbly Paula Davis all the time, the cheerleader, always rounding up the troops and let’s get this done," she says.
Davis is one of 21 women in the Legislature. Five of them will be term limited in next year’s election. The Women’s Caucus hopes to be a resource encouraging more women to run for office.