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Women who made history in last elections have made a mark on Virginia’s House

Tone and debate in Richmond are being altered by historically high number of women


Judging strictly by legislation passed, the record number of women in this year's Virginia House of Delegates had only modest impact. 

Most of the new delegates are Democrats, and most of their bills died in Republican-controlled committees — which is typical for freshmen, male or female. 

But House members said the presence of a historic number of women in the chamber created a fundamental shift in matters large and small, from the tone of debate to the way the House operates. 

Two female delegates, for instance — one Republican, one Democrat — clashed over how to create sexual harassment policy. They disagreed on approach, but the result was the House's first-ever requirement for a training program to prevent harassment. 

Female delegates led the calls for gun control after the Florida school shooting. They had no luck on gun bills, but Republican Speaker Kirk Cox eventually appointed a rare select committee to address school safety — though only three of the 21 members are women. 

It was a Virginia woman — Del. Elizabeth Guzman, a Prince William Democrat — who was selected by national Democrats to give the Spanish-language response to President Trump's State of the Union address. 

And some members credited the greater presence of women with influencing the issues that did not come up this year. Most notably, few divisive abortion-related bills made it to the floor of the House. 

That's partly because Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, replaced one of the House's most ardent abortion opponents, former Del. Bob Marshall. And Roem, who is also Virginia's first transgender lawmaker, said the women have only begun to reshape the legislature. 

"My goal is 51 percent women," Roem said. "Then I think you'd fundamentally change the culture. You will have a collaborative legislative process beyond anything in the last 399 years." 

Women made huge gains in Virginia's House in last fall's election. Twelve new women joined the chamber, all replacing men and bringing the total to an all-time high of 28 out of 100 seats. All but one of the new women were Democrats who flipped Republican seats, bringing their party within a hair of a majority for the first time in years. 

While many saw their bills founder in committee, a few measures carried by freshman women got through both House and Senate. Elementary school children will get more time for recess, foster parents and close relatives won't have to wait so long to adopt children and income tax preparers will have to notify the state right away if they detect a data breach — all thanks to newly elected women. 

"Because there are more women there are different perspectives and thoughts when we're talking about bills, and just real-life [ideas about] how something will affect somebody," said Del. Charniele Herring, who chairs the Democratic caucus and is the first woman to hold such a position. 

For Del. Vivian Watts , who is the longest-serving woman in the House, with 26 years in office, suddenly having so many more female colleagues has been liberating. 

"I was genuinely surprised that there was a certain freedom in my own expression," Watts said. "Over the years having come in as I did when there were so few women you were very careful about what you said ....Whereas now there's more shared experience, that these things have context." 

During the floor debate over sexual harassment training, Watts alluded to her own painful experience of abuse, something she had long resisted talking about. 

But more than tone has changed. When Watts first joined the House, women were shut out of informal socializing and deal-making because the members' lounge was attached to the men's restroom. 

At one point, she remembered, free oysters were being served in the lounge, and a delegate asked if she'd like some. She didn't really want any, but she did want to get into that lounge, so she said yes. But instead of inviting her in, the male delegate simply set her a plate outside the door — like feeding a kitten, she said. 

Now, new delegates Jennifer Carroll Foy and Kathy Tran have taken the initiative to start an informal "parents' caucus" to help members — male or female — deal with the tricky issues of raising young children while serving in the legislature. They have worked with Del. Eileen Filler-Corn to compile lists of family activities in Richmond and places for day care. 

"Hopefully there'll be another wave of women who have children and this would...actually encourage them to run knowing that we have a family-friendly atmosphere here," said Foy, a public defender who has taken a high profile in criminal justice reform issues. 

She and Tran worked with House clerk's office to make arrangements for nursing mothers — both have small children — and to ensure that the new office building under construction for the General Assembly will have nursing rooms and restrooms with baby changing tables. 

The new tone has been noted by the Republican leadership. Cox kicked off the session by announcing that he would extend generous family leave policies to the House of Delegates staff. And Del. S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk), chairman of the Appropriations committee, said he welcomes the perspective brought by having more women in the chamber. 

"I've had good interactions with the new members," he said. "They're passionate about their legislation, but they're willing to listen and learn about the process, which is what we all do as freshman." 

But change only goes so far. Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler introduced a resolution to recognize the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion as a "Day of Women" instead of "Day of Tears" — the name chosen by the legislature last year. 

 

Her bill never made it out of committee.


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