The number of women holding an elected legislative office at the Indiana Statehouse hit a record high of 40 following the outcomes of last week’s elections. Should results hold, a total of 31 women will serve in the House and another nine will work in the Senate.
The percentage of women in the Indiana General Assembly, 26.7%, is comparable to the nationwide rate in Congress, which hit its own record last year of 27.3%, or 120 of the 439 members. Both numbers fall short of the representation of women in the general population, which is 50.5% for the country and 50.4% for Indiana.
Laura Merrifield Wilson, a professor of political science from the University of Indianapolis, said the record number of women participating in politics could be viewed as both a win and a loss.
“Gender parity just doesn’t exist in our country yet in terms of politics. So, on one hand, we can be dismayed that we’re still not in a place where this could be viewed as a moot issue,” Wilson said. “It’s also helpful to remember it’s not just the number but what the number means. We can focus on the symbolic representation and … certainly it’s encouraging for little girls to see women in roles of power.”
Friday recanvas (potentially) clinches win for 40th woman
The Friday re-election of Rep. Rita Fleming, D-Jeffersonville, helped to push the total over the previous record of 38, which the General Assembly held during the 2020 legislative session, according to the Capitol & Washington political blog.
A two-term representative, Fleming initially looked like she would fall 35 votes short to Republican challenger Scott Hawkins. But a recanvassing of votes l meeting of the Clark County Election Board on Friday, a federal holiday, added another 1,032 votes to its official Tuesday night tally, boosting Fleming and giving her a 225-vote lead over Hawkins.
Hawkins attorney, Zachary Stewart, didn’t rule out legal action following the new totals, saying Monday they were weighing their options. The board still needs to certify the election results in the coming week and recounts could be requested.
But Fleming seemed confident that her win would withstand a recount and was eager to rejoin the chamber in January.
“This was a win for positive politics and bipartisanship in government,” Fleming said on Monday.
Fleming’s victory would also increase the Democratic caucus in the House. Democrats flipped a seat in Hamilton County and gained a representative from Fort Wayne in a new district created by redistricting. These gains offset their loss of long-time legislator Rep. Terri Austin, a Democrat who represented Anderson for two decades.
Democrats came close to gaining another seat, also held by a woman, in southern Monroe County with Penny Githens, who came within 37 votes of Republican Dave Hall. Githens can file for a recount until Nov. 22 but Hall has claimed victory. A win for Githens would have brought the total of women serving in the statehouse to 41.
Why don’t more women run for office?
Wilson observed that the vast majority of politicians, no matter the political level, are educated, middle-to-upper class white men–a minority in both Indiana and the nation. Often, there are “four career pipelines” that lend themselves to political candidacy: education, law, business and lower-level political aides.
In all four fields, men outnumber women. Industries in which women outnumber men, including the service industry, don’t offer the same flexibility that allows someone to take off three to four months each year to serve during the legislative session.
Women run for political offices less often than men for a myriad of reasons, Wilson said, crediting much of the field’s research to Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox. Lawless and Fox have found that, when women decide to run, they win at roughly the same rates as men.
But women often compare themselves to the ideal version of a politician, rather than the realistic version.
“Women say, ‘You know, I’m not that great of a public speaker … I know other people that would be better,’” Wilson said. “Men would say, ‘I see Senator So-and-so and I’ve seen this representative, I’m a better public speaker than them.’
“… When you compare yourself to the actual (average politician), it’s more realistic than the idealized. Of course with the idealized, no one could possibly be that or live up to that.”
Wilson emphasized that Indiana has historically done well in the state’s highest offices, including the governor’s cabinet or executive-level positions and even in party-level recruitment efforts.
On the Republican side, the Lugar Series has trained women for public service for 33 years and the Democratic Hoosier Women Forward came online in 2018.
“In both cases, it’s a party recognizing that it’s their responsibility to help cultivate strong candidates,” Wilson said.
Despite several women serving as lieutenant governor, including current Suzanne Crouch, none have made the leap to become the state’s first female governor. Additionally, Chief Justice Loretta Rush, the court’s only woman since 2014, is the first woman to lead the state’s Supreme Court but only the second woman ever appointed to the court.
While both female and male candidates underestimate the financial cost of a campaign, women are much closer to the total than their counterparts, Wilson said. Seeing that Sen. Kyle Walker, for example, had to raise over $1 million to keep his seat in a purple district might be discouraging for a newcomer with fewer resources.
The impact of women in 2023 session
The Indiana Supreme Court will possibly hear arguments against the state’s near-total abortion ban in January, likely ruling while the General Assembly is still in session. As the ones bearing children, women’s voices are crucial to any discussion on their bodily autonomy.
“Even if it doesn’t change (the outcome) directly, having considered those perspectives is still valuable,” Wilson said.
In the Senate, three of the nine women in the chamber are Democrats. In the House, the record-high number of women is nearly split equally for both parties, with 16 Republicans and 15 Democrats.
Republican women also had a big win on Election Night, with five new women joining the caucus: Becky Cash, in central Indiana; Julie McGuire, in southern Indianapolis; Lorissa Sweet in northeastern Indiana; Lindsay Patterson in east central Indiana; and Jennifer Meltzer, southeast of Indianapolis.
Years spent as an OB-GYN inform Fleming’s view of the state’s healthcare, especially its dismal maternal health disparities, abortion laws and shortages in childcare.
“I represent everyone–male, female, Democrat, Republican, whatever–but I think as a woman, and particularly as a woman with a career in health care, I can bring a perspective that others may not have,” Fleming said.
In past years, Fleming has advocated for expanded ways to prescribe birth control methods for women through pharmacies. During the special session on an abortion ban, Fleming drew from her experience to share the often devastating physical effects of pregnancy on young girls.
“When we face our challenges, our childcare challenges (and) our maternal mortality challenges, I think those are things that maybe women can have a better handle on and look for how we can improve,” Fleming said.
This story is by Whitney Downard, of The Indiana Capital Chronicle, an independent, not-for-profit news organization that covers state government, policy and elections.