Where women call the shots
The nation’s first majority-female legislature is currently meeting in Nevada. Carson City may never be the same.
By Emily Wax-Thibodeaux
May 17 2019
CARSON CITY, Nev. — She didn’t plan to say it. Yvanna Cancela, a newly elected Democrat in the Nevada Senate, didn’t want to “sound crass.” But when a Republican colleague defended a century-old law requiring doctors to ask women seeking abortions whether they’re married, Cancela couldn’t help firing back.
“A man is not asked his marital status before he gets a vasectomy,” she countered — and the packed hearing room fell silent.
Since Nevada seated the nation’s first majority-female state legislature in January, the male old guard has been shaken up by the perspectives of female lawmakers. Bills prioritizing women’s health and safety have soared to the top of the agenda. Mounting reports of sexual harassment have led one male lawmaker to resign. And policy debates long dominated by men, including prison reform and gun safety, are yielding to female voices.
Cancela, 32, is part of the wave of women elected by both parties in November, many of them younger than 40. Today, women hold the majority with 23 seats in the Assembly and 10 in the Senate, or a combined 52 percent.
No other legislature has achieved that milestone in U.S. history. Only Colorado comes close, with women constituting 47 percent of its legislators. In Congress, just one in four lawmakers is a woman. And in Alabama, which just enacted an almost complete ban on abortion, women make up just 15 percent of lawmakers.
The female majority is having a huge effect: More than 17 pending bills deal with sexual assault, sex trafficking and sexual misconduct, with some measures aimed at making it easier to prosecute offenders. Bills to ban child marriage and examine the causes of maternal mortality are also on the docket.
“I can say with 100 percent certainty that we wouldn’t have had these conversations” a few years ago, said Assembly Majority Leader Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D). “None of these bills would have seen the light of day.”
Nevada didn’t reach this landmark by accident. A loosely coordinated campaign of political action groups and women’s rights organizations recruited and trained women such as Cancela, who became political director of the 57,000-member Culinary Workers Union before she turned 30. One of those organizations, Emerge Nevada, said it trained twice as many female candidates ahead of the 2018 midterm election as it had in the preceding 12 years.
Meanwhile, the election of President Trump in 2016 mobilized Democratic women nationwide, including in Nevada, where women already held 40 percent of statehouse seats.
Along with the gender shift has come a steady increase in racial diversity: Of 63 lawmakers in Nevada, 11 are African American, nine are Hispanic, one is Native American and one, Rochelle Thuy Nguyen (D), 41, is the legislature’s first Democratic female Asian American Pacific Islander.
The result may seem surprising in a state more often defined by the hypersexuality and neon-lit debauchery of the Las Vegas Strip. Until 2017, the legislature included an assemblyman who had briefly appeared as an extra in a film about women being kidnapped and forced to live naked in kennels, according to PolitiFact.
But that lawmaker, Stephen Silberkraus (R), 38, was defeated by a woman, Lesley Cohen (D), 48, who highlighted the film during her campaign. (Silberkraus told reporters that he had been unaware of the film’s sexual nature.) As a member of the Assembly, Cohen is leading a study on conditions for female sex workers in Nevada’s rural brothels, the nation’s only legal bordellos.
“Outsiders ask why and how Nevada — of all places — became first,” Cohen said. “But I say, why not Nevada? Why not everywhere?”
A culture change
Carson City is a tiny frontier town, cradled among the snow-capped Sierra Nevada. For decades in the statehouse, charges of sexual harassment often were shrugged off or belittled, and bills sponsored by women were sometimes mocked.
In 2015, Sen. Patricia Ann Spearman (D), now 64, said legislative leaders refused to schedule a hearing on her bill to promote pay equity for women. “The boys club was like, ‘Why do we need that?’ ” she said. “It was a very misogynistic session.”
As recently as 2017, when the legislature approved a public referendum to repeal the “pink tax” on necessities such as tampons and diapers, one assemblyman argued against it, saying it would create a slippery slope.
“Can I add my jockstrap purchases to your list? You might argue it’s not a necessity, but I might beg to differ,” Jim Marchant (R) said at the time. Last November, voters agreed to repeal the tax — and replaced Marchant with a woman, Shea Backus (D).
Even now, female lawmakers in both parties say they receive anonymous phone calls from men commenting on their looks or threatening sexual violence. GOP women “share a lot of common ground and lived experiences with Democratic women,” said Assemblywoman Jill Tolles (R), 45.