POSTED: Monday, February 3, 2014 - 12:00pm
UPDATED: Monday, February 3, 2014 - 12:14pm
AUSTIN, Texas — State Sen. Wendy Davis has used her 11-hour filibuster against abortion-restricting legislation to propel a run for governor, and Texas’ hottest political race centers on whether her supporters can usher a Democratic woman into a governor’s mansion occupied by Republican men for the last two decades.
Despite the attention on Davis, Texas ranks 33rd for its percentage of female legislators. While women make up more than half the state, only 21 percent of the 181 state legislators who served last year were women, down from 24 percent in 2009. The number of women in the upper chamber is unlikely to increase, even as two of the seven in the 31-member Senate — Davis and Leticia Van de Putte, a Democrat who is trying to become the state’s first female lieutenant governor — pursue statewide office. An increase of women is more likely in the House.
Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said that the number of women serving in state legislatures has stagnated, even in states like South Carolina that have elected a woman as governor.
“There isn’t always that trickle-down effect,” Walsh said.
Still, since Davis’ filibuster, more women in Texas have expressed interest in running for office, said Grace Garcia, executive director of Annie’s List, a state group that works to elect Democratic women who favor abortion rights.
“It was a defining moment for women in the importance of engaging,” Garcia said.
Whether that will translate into more women serving in the Legislature is unclear.
No male senators drew major-party female challengers for the March 4 primaries or November general election, and no Republican or Democratic women are running for the open Senate seats held by men. So far, no women have filed to run in the May special election for an open Houston-area Senate seat.
There is the potential for an additional woman to join that chamber if a senator who is running for comptroller wins his race. It is also possible that the number of women in the Senate could decrease.
In the 150-member House, about 20 districts represented by men have drawn major-party female challengers, and on Tuesday, Celia Israel, a Democrat, won a special runoff for an Austin seat vacated by a man. She will seek a full term in November.
“Sometimes it’s just a matter of women realizing their own power and taking the initiative when they haven’t been asked to the good old boys’ war room,” said Israel, who worked for Texas' last female governor, Democrat Ann Richards.
One barrier, Walsh said, was actually getting women to run for state legislature seats; the number of female candidates has changed very little in the last 20 years. According to a 2008 survey of state legislators by the Rutgers center, nearly twice as many women representatives as men had not seriously considered running until someone suggested it.
Advocates for women in public service say losing the female voice at the table affects how policy is made. Female legislators are more likely to prioritize issues that affect women, families and children, Walsh said.
Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, said having more women in office could also affect the legislative schedule. “There may be some changes to the calendar that they would like to see so they could participate fully in their family and serve,” said Klick, whose involvement in politics increased as her children grew older.
In the Texas Legislature, two Senate committees and five House committees have only male members, including the natural resources panels in both chambers.
A spokeswoman for House Speaker Joe Straus, a Republican, said a higher percentage of House women than men serve in committee leadership roles.
“Assignments are primarily a product of a member’s seniority and preference, but the speaker makes it a priority to consider geography, ethnicity, political party and gender in these decisions,” the spokeswoman, Erin Daly, said.
To former state Sen. Cyndi Taylor Krier, R-San Antonio, the Legislature’s current census is a significant improvement. She was the only woman in the Senate during her first session, in 1985. Krier said having more women could change the tone of discussions. She recalled a committee hearing about rape in which she felt that her male colleagues were not as sensitive as they should have been.
“It gives the Legislature a broader perspective when it has broad groups of people serving in it,” she said.