North Dakota’s 21 percent
How female lawmakers feel gender does (or doesn’t) affect the legislature
By DIANE NEWBERRY
ND Newspaper Association
Freshman Rep. LaurieBeth Hager, D-Fargo, didn’t think a House Concurrent Resolution celebrating the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment would be controversial.
“It’s a historic event, (as) women received the right to vote in the 19th Amendment 100 years ago,” Hager said. “That’s history. That’s not controversial or even a questionable kind of thing.”
Though the resolution did pass the House 85-3, there was some debate on the floor about “identity politics” after Assistant Minority Leader Karla Rose Hanson, D-Fargo, gave a speech acknowledging that Native Americans, Asian Americans and African Americans were not secure in their vote until later in the 21st century.
“It bothers me when I hear the identity politics brought into this,” Rep. Dan Ruby, R-Minot, said on the floor. “I wish we could have just passed this without having to have gone down that road and recognize what those women fought for and what they deserved and what they were able to gain and be proud of that.” Ruby did vote in favor of the resolution.
The speech she gave acknowledging the struggle of other minorities, Hanson said, was influenced in part by her experiences as a female legislator.
“It’s maybe a set of facts to which I’m especially attuned,” Hanson said.
A female minority
There are 30 female lawmakers in the 66th North Dakota session, making the Legislature 21 percent female. According to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures, that is a slight uptick from sessions over the past 10 years, in which the number hovered between 15 percent and 19 percent.
Some female lawmakers say they do feel pressure because of gender, particularly female Democrats who represent a “double minority” as Sen. Erin Oban, D-Bismarck, calls herself.
“At least the first 10 days, that was my experience always being a minority,” Hager said. “Sitting in this piece of the puzzle (the Democratic section of the House) looking out across all those male faces, dark suits and ties, and then being in this little chunk over here where we are on this side – every breath I took I felt that.”
Oban says the best advice she got as a new legislator came from the late Rep. Rae Ann Kelsch, a Mandan Republican, who said: “Erin, there are going to be people who have opinions about you before they even know you. You have two ears and one mouth, use them in that order and you will be just fine.”
One legislator who doesn’t like to dwell on gender is Sen. Judy Lee, R-West Fargo, who has been a senator since 1995. She said “any legislator who is doing their work and is well accepted by leadership” has equal opportunity.
“That just is not an issue, has not been an issue and I am really disappointed when people view women as victims because there may be fewer in a particular setting,” Lee said. “There are a lot of really good women who are in the legislature and there are a lot of really good men who are in the legislature and there are a couple who maybe I wouldn’t invite to Christmas dinner.”
Both Rep. Lisa Meier, R-Bismarck, and Rep. Brandy Pyle, R-Casselton, said women could bring a different perspective to legislation than men, neither has felt particularly singled out or less effective because of their gender.
Of the three Republican women on her committee, freshman Rep. Mary Adams, D-Grand Forks, said, “We get along very well.”
“It’s easy to talk to them about things, and basically we do see eye to eye on a lot of issues,” Adams said. “Women aren’t as stand-offish as men are. Women can sit down and talk about politics and we can talk about family and life in general.”
Hanson said that for her, gender hasn’t played a huge role in forming political relationships.
“We work really hard as Democrats to build relationships not only across the aisle but across the hallway with our Senate colleagues,” Hanson said. To do this, Hanson said she focuses on the issues at hand, which only occasionally – like in the case of paid family leave – fall on gender lines.
Pyle said a particular bright spot of bonding among women of both parties was the baby shower for Rep. Emily O’Brien, R-Grand Forks. O’Brien gave birth March 2.
“We did it because we’re women and we’re mothers and why would we want to exclude somebody?” Pyle said. “We all have to work together.
“Yep!” Pyle said when asked if she thought there was more pressure on working mothers in the Legislature than working fathers. Pyle herself has four children, who she said love to come to work with her when they can.
“When I worked in a corporate job and I traveled a lot, I would often be asked, ‘who’s taking care of your kids?'” Hanson said. “And I don’t think that same question was asked of my male colleagues.”
Lee, who came into office after raising her children, noted that the complications of having a young family can lead to a lack of young people of both genders in the legislature, not just women.
In the fall before her second session, Oban could not find childcare for a child she and her husband had adopted. Even in Bismarck, North Dakota’s second largest city, she said she was wait-listed at every daycare and had to quit her job to stay home with her son. It was this experience that led her to champion family leave in North Dakota. She said she has been disappointed by lawmakers’ unwillingness this session to address it, even striking down a resolution to study the issue.
“Maybe it’s because the majority of my colleagues really don’t think this affects very many families,” Oban said. “But I know that’s not true.”
Among women in the North Dakota Legislature, there is a diversity of backgrounds and opinion.
“I think that it’s really important that there are women here and that the way we think and the way we can talk things through – that voice really needs to be heard, especially in this legislative body,” Hager said. “Sometimes I just assume all women think the same way and so sometimes it’s interesting when there are the differences between the women across both parties.”
Many female lawmakers mentioned that although they may be different, they would like to see representation of women in the legislature more accurately reflect the portion of the population that is female.
Oban would like to see more awareness of the disparity of gender balance in the legislature, “but always keeping in mind that in no way is that a disparaging remark (about) the men I serve with.”
“But electing representatives should represent the communities that you serve. When half the population is women, I think it makes sense for the legislature to look the same.”