What Women Want? Women’s Representation and Reproductive Rights Legislation.

by Kaitlin Sidorsky, author of All Roads Lead to Power: Appointed and Elected Paths to Public Office for US Women

Last year we questioned whether a “Pink Wave” was coming for women’s representation in elected offices across the United States. This year, after seeing significant gains in the numbers of women serving in both Congress and the State Legislatures, we stand confused by recent abortion legislation passed in Alabama, Georgia, and Missouri. Across the United States, there are 2,129 women serving in our State Legislatures, putting the percentage of women legislators at 28.8 percent – the highest it has ever been in United States history (Center for American Women in Politics 2019). Over 23 percent of congressional members are women, up from 20 percent a year ago. Nine of our 50 governors are women, one of whom signed into law the Alabama abortion legislation. Despite the gains made in women’s representation since the 2018 election, we are still far from gender parity in our electoral institutions – an issue that has become painfully clear during this year’s state legislative sessions.

In an effort to take advantage of a potentially anti-Roe v. Wade Supreme Court, conservative states across the nation are writing restrictive abortion laws. Every day media outlets report on yet another state passing “the most restrictive abortion law in the nation.” These laws range from fetal heartbeat bills that ban abortions as soon as a heartbeat can be detected, (6-8 weeks, regardless if the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest), to outright abortion bans (Alabama).

So much of our attention has been on the passage of these anti-abortion laws that we have overlooked the states that are trying to increase protections for a woman’s right to choose. In January, New York passed a law that allows abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy, allowing doctors to avoid criminal prosecution as long as the fetus is not viable or the mother’s life is in danger. Vermont is working on a state constitutional amendment to protect a woman’s right to an abortion – the first state to ever do so. Maine is attempting to pass a law to expand the kinds of medical professionals who can perform abortions, and Nevada is legislating a bill that removes a requirement that forces doctors to tell their patients about the “physical and emotional implications” of having an abortion, as well as removing other restrictive requirements.

What makes these states different from states like Alabama, Ohio, and Georgia? A large part of the answer is representation. Only 15.7 percent of Alabama legislators are women, compared to 40 percent of Vermont legislators. In fact, besides Georgia, all of the states that have passed or are trying to pass anti-abortion legislation are below the national average of 28.8 percent of female legislators (30.5 percent of Georgia’s legislature are women). Over 32 percent of New York’s legislature are women, and 38.2 percent of Maine’s. Most importantly, the first state to ever achieve gender parity – Nevada – has 52.4 percent of its legislature as female.

Inevitably, the majority of women who serve are Democrats, meaning any legislation about women’s rights is not just one of gender, but party as well. Even with the recognition that party identification is a major driving force in this policy arena, we must consider the implications of legislatures that are overwhelmingly dominated by men making health care decisions for the countless women in their states. This does not mean that all women are pro-choice, Alabama Republican Governor Kay Ivey is the prime example of the significant percent of women who do not support access to abortions across the United States. But it is moments like these, when the policies are so gendered, the stakes are so high, and the numbers of women serving in elected office are so unequivocally low across the United States that we should consider the importance of women’s representation. This means both parties making concerted efforts in recruiting women to run, more women throwing their hat in the ring to seek elected office, and all constituents realizing the importance of women serving as their representatives.

Kaitlin N. Sidorsky has a Ph.D. and M.A. in Political Science from Brown University and a BA in Politics and Law from Bryant University. Sidorsky is an assistant professor of Politics at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina. All Roads Lead to Power: Appointed and Elected Paths to Public Office for US Women is her first book.