Tribune-Star: America benefits from more women in public offices
Think of the faces routinely seen on the front lines of community litter cleanups, school sports banquets, candidate forums, church meetings, farmers' markets, downtown festivals and food kitchens.
Many are women. In some cases, a majority are women and have been for a long time.
Now, think of the elected officials running the municipal, state and national governments. Most are men. Nearly three-quarters of the officeholders are male. The public leadership does not mirror the population.
The situation is changing. This month, more women than ever before are beginning terms in public office across the U.S. Their numbers still fall far short of truly representative proportions, but change comes slowly and not in straight lines. Fifty-one percent of Americans are women. The 116th Congress is 23.7 percent female, a record. One-hundred and two U.S. House members are women, including 42 women of color, while females hold 25 seats in the U.S. Senate — all records. The House freshman class includes a record 36 women.
On the state level, a majority of the Democrats in the Indiana House are women. That is a first. Five of the seven statewide elected offices are held by women, and all are Republicans.
Often described as a "pink wave," the infusion of women serving in public office has reached Vigo County, too. Several took the oath for the first time in the last couple weeks.
Four of the seven Vigo County School Board members are women, setting up the first female majority on a local elected board in recent memory. The Terre Haute City Council chose Martha Crossen as its president for 2019 last week. The Indiana Association of County Commissioners elected Vigo County Commissioner Judy Anderson as its president.
And, veteran high school math teacher Tonya Pfaff won Terre Haute's District 43 seat in the Indiana House of Representatives. In addition to helping build a female majority in the House Democratic Caucus, Pfaff also becomes the first woman elected to represent Terre Haute in the Indiana House since Emma Mary Mae in 1944.
Those gains mark progress toward a stronger democracy, but again, change seldom follows a straight path. Besides being a majority of the population and yet a substantial minority on nearly every elective body in the country, women also saw their numbers shrink among Republicans in the U.S. House. Fifty-two females ran for Congress' lower chamber in November, and just 13 won.
That slide leaves the GOP with its smallest female House delegation in more than two decades and a drop from 23 women reps last year. The situation shows in the Indiana General Assembly, too. Republicans rule Indiana government and hold super-majority status in the Legislature (that means they need no Democratic support to advance legislation), yet just 16 of their 107 state senators and representatives are women. Republicans' shift to the ideological right, especially on social issues, distanced some female candidates from the party's base voters.
Governmental entities more deeply consider the needs of all citizens when a cross-section of the population serves in public offices. Political parties should redouble efforts to recruit and support women candidates. Susan Brooks, GOP congresswoman from Indiana's 5th District, told the Indianapolis Star this month, "I've been saying this ever since I've been here — the women in the Republican Party have not been supported financially and have not had the fundraising success that many of our male counterparts have."
For now, a healthy step forward began after New Year's Day in Washington, Indianapolis, Terre Haute and communities around the U.S. Women will not only be heard more clearly, but also wield additional power to make changes they see as necessary. America benefits, as a result.