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Number of women in WV Legislature at 33-year low

The Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Stacy North, chairwoman of the board for the West Virginia Women’s Commission, stood weeks ago before a group of lawmakers at the state Legislature and made the case that it shouldn’t disband the Women’s Commission.

The Republican-led Legislature was considering disbanding many boards and commissions, such as the Women’s Commission, to save money, according to North.

She said she can’t remember whether there were any women in the room. She was last on the agenda, and more than half the legislators had already left, she said.

“We were told we had five minutes,” she said. “Everyone else took up a lot more time. By the time it was our turn, a lot of people were already gone and they just wanted us to get through our little presentation. We got five minutes, but I don’t know that anyone paid attention to what was said.”

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In 2017, the 134-member state Legislature will have 18 women — the lowest number since 1984.

That’s equal to about 13 percent. (According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, the proportion of women in state legislatures nationwide in 2017 will be 24.8 percent.)

In 1990, there were 29 women in the W.Va. Legislature.

Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics, took a look at the numbers and said that while West Virginia has seen a slight increase in women candidates over the last 20 years, more need to run for office in order to achieve gender equity in the Legislature. The number has increased over time — but not by enough.

According to the center, from 1994-2016 the number of women who ran for the West Virginia Legislature increased from 33 in 1994 to 40 in 2016. The numbers ranged from lows of 31 in 2010 and 2006 to a high of 46 in 2014.

Women, unlike men, generally wait to be asked before running for office. But Walsh said achieving gender equity in the Legislature will require more than encouraging women to run for office — it will also require targeted recruitment.

“There has to be, I think, a targeted recruitment that’s done either by outside organizations  or even better the political parties, if they cared about getting women in office,” she said. “The reality is most of the people who do the recruiting of candidates tend to be white men, and they tend to pick people like them. It means breaking out of the usual suspects to identify good women who are in a position to run for office, but not putting them up as sacrificial lambs in races that are unwinnable.”

Walsh suggested that the Republican Party’s new control of the Legislature could also be a factor. She said Republican women might be perceived as more moderate their Republican male counterparts, so it’s harder to make it through the primaries. She also said that the most conservative voters, who may have resistance to female candidates, are likely to turn out in primary elections.

She also noted that women tend to need to be encouraged to run for office.

“If Republicans run the show, and they’re not recruiting women actively, they’re likely to not have them as candidates at all,” she said.

Almost 40 women ran for seats in the Legislature in the general election. Most of the women who won were Republican, and most of the women who lost were Democrats. A few more Democratic women than Republican women ran in the general.

Conrad Lucas, chairman of the state Republican Party, pointed to several trainings geared toward women candidates the party held as part of a national effort in 2014.

He said through those efforts in 2014, the party learned more about the psychology of women candidates and recognizes that women need more encouragement.

“When we are recruiting female candidates, we never expect an answer of ‘yes’ the first time,” he said.

But he also pointed several times to Democrats, whom he said were worse at recruiting and supporting female candidates that can win.

“The Democrats have done a terrible job of recruiting female candidates,” he said. “The real war on women in West Virginia is on the Democrat side.”

Belinda Biafore, chairwoman of the West Virginia Democratic Party, said the Democratic Party had focused on recruiting women, and that “quite frankly, they did pretty well.”

“I guess it just wasn’t their time in West Virginia,” she said.

Biafore noted that women are less likely to run for office unless they know they have support.

“Women don’t seem to be able to raise as much money and I don’t know that people take women candidates as seriously as they should,” she said. “They see women more in the role of taking care of the children and the household.”

She acknowledged a need for more women in the Legislature, although the party doesn’t have a firm “blueprint” on how to achieve that.

“We’re still looking at what different things we could have done,” she said. “Considering the [Donald] Trump factor in West Virginia, we could have done a lot worse.”

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The Women’s Commission has operated the Ready to Run program, which prepares women to run for office. It organizes Women’s and Girls’ Day at the Legislature.

Recently, it called on Governor-elect Jim Justice to appoint 50 percent women to state-level boards and commissions. Since then, his press secretary, Grant Herring, has not returned calls or emails.

It also prepares reports for the Legislature on how to improve the status of women. The reports are generally “taken with a grain of salt,” North said.

For any of its efforts to be persuasive to lawmakers, North says the Commission needs backup from other women. It needs those people to call lawmakers, make phone calls, lobby. It needs women to run for office and support other women. It also needs lawmakers, parties and other influential people to listen.

“The Women’s Commission can’t do it all by themselves,” North said. “You have to have a group effort.”

Reach Erin Beck at [email protected], 304-348-5163,, or follow @erinbeckwv on Twitter.

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