Politics

Women make gains in legislative leadership posts

For years, women running for office have demanded a seat at the table where decisions are made. After this month’s midterm elections, women will sit at the head of the table after seizing key leadership posts in states around the country.
Pennsylvania state Rep. Joanna McClinton (D) is set to become the first woman to lead the state House after Democrats claimed control. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

For years, women running for office have demanded a seat at the table where decisions are made. After this month’s midterm elections, women will sit at the head of the table after seizing key leadership posts in states around the country.

Democratic gains in Michigan will install the first woman to lead the state Senate. In Pennsylvania, a Democratic majority will elevate the first woman and only the second Black person to head the state House.

State Houses in Maine and Colorado will be run by all-female leadership teams. Colorado will become the second state, after Nevada, to boast a legislature with more female members than men. And two top leaders in the Delaware House are women for the first time.

“Men have been in charge for hundreds and hundreds of years, and it’s just high time that we have a legislature that really reflects the voices of the people that we serve,” said Michigan Sen. Winnie Brinks (D), who was selected by her colleagues to be the state’s first female Senate majority leader after Democrats won control of both of Michigan’s legislative chambers earlier this month. 

“The increase in women who are not just in the legislature, but in the highest offices of the legislature is a huge improvement on that. And I think you’ll see better government because of it, at least more reflective of what the people really believe is important,” Brinks said.

Three of Michigan’s four statewide elected officials are women. All three — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D) and Attorney General Dana Nessel (D) — won re-election to second terms earlier this month. 

Whitmer was just one of 11 women to win governorships this year. Voters in Arizona, Arkansas and Oregon elected new female governors this year. Voters in Massachusetts, New York elected female governors for the first time, though in both cases women had ascended to the top job before. And incumbent female governors in Iowa, Kansas, Maine, New Mexico and South Dakota all won re-election.

Most official leadership elections are still weeks away, making it too early to tell how the ranks of women in leadership across the country will compare to previous years. 

But female lawmakers and groups that support them said the early reports are an important sign that women are making strides in a decades-long effort to reach equal representation. 

“This is another measure of women’s political power,” said Kelly Dittmar, director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. “While it matters to have greater representation of women in the legislature overall, legislative leadership positions allow women to have even more influence over the policy agendas and outcomes within the legislature, as well as shaping how the institution is run.”

The leadership gains for women follow a midterm cycle that also saw historic wins for candidates of color and the LGBTQ community. Several of the state caucuses that named new female leaders also named Black lawmakers to leadership posts for the first time. 

Those gains were not universal; most leadership positions in legislatures will still be held by men. 

In Pennsylvania, Democratic Rep. Joanna McClinton, the state House Minority Leader, will become the first woman – and only the second Black person – to serve as House speaker after her party gained control of the chamber for the first time in a decade. Republicans who control the state Senate also named Sen. Kim Ward the first woman to serve as Senator Pro Tempore. 

In Maine, Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross will be the first Black woman to serve as House speaker. Democrats who control the House selected women for every other leadership post. 

After Colorado became the second state in the country to have a majority-female legislature, Democrats in control of the state House named women to all three of the caucus’s leadership posts for the first time in the state’s history. 

Women make up more than half the seats of the majority caucus in Delaware’s House of Representatives. Democrats chose state Rep. Valerie Longhurst as Majority Leader, and Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown as Majority Whip. 

In 2022, 88 women – 66 Democrats and 22 Republicans – served in leadership positions in statehouses across the country, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. 

Seven states – Alabama, Indiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, South Carolina, South Dakota and Texas – had no women in leadership that year.