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Louisiana's Woman Problem: State Ranks Dead Last In Female Representation

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WASHINGTON -- Louisiana may have gender parity amongst its United States senators, but in state government, men still rule. In fact, Louisiana has the smallest proportion of women in its Legislature.

A host of factors have been proposed as reasons why Louisiana women are underrepresented in state government. Experts have cited trouble encouraging Republican women to run for office, state culture, perceived barriers to entry and lack of structural support for potential candidates. Though Democrats and Republicans may disagree on many issues, women in both parties are asking why they aren't running, and what can be done to get more of them involved.

LOUISIANA'S SHORTAGE OF WOMEN IN GOVERNMENT

According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University (CAWP), women make up 11.8 percent of Louisiana's legislature. Only 13 out of the 105 members serving in Louisiana's House of Representatives are women, as are just 4 out of the 39 state senators. These figures are lower than they were in 2005, when there were seven women were in the state Senate and 18 in the House. Moreover, there are currently no women holding statewide office in Louisiana, and only one woman representing the state in the U.S. Congress.

One of the main distinctions experts make between Louisiana and other states when examining the dearth of women is the state's strong Republican leanings. The GOP has a majority in both the state Senate and House.

"Women are, to the extent that they run for office, they're much more likely to run as Democrats than Republicans," said Robert Hogan, associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University.

According to CAWP, 63.7 percent of women in state legislatures nationwide are Democrats, and 35.4 are Republicans. Of the 17 women in Louisiana's Legislature today, 12 are Democrats and five are Republicans.

"If people want more women to hold office in the state, they either have to elect more Democrats or the Republican Party needs to recruit more women to run as Republicans," concluded J. Celeste Lay, an assistant professor of political science at Tulane University.

WHAT LOUISIANA'S WOMEN LEGISLATORS ARE SAYING

Two state representatives believe the reason so few Louisiana women run is, in part, a result of them putting the care of their families before their careers.

"In the culture of Louisiana and the South, women take the role of primary caregiver pretty seriously. Plenty of my male counterparts have younger children, but I am almost the only female that is also raising a relatively young family," state Rep. Julie Stokes (R) said.

State Rep. Simone Champagne (R), a mother of five, said she had all but finished raising her children by the time she decided to run for office.

"When I was younger ... my priority was to work and raise my children and make sure they were taken care of," she said.

The perception that women have a harder time fundraising persists as well.

"A lot of times, as a woman I know I can raise money and fundraise for other non-profits and groups, but it's very hard for us to ask for something for ourselves," said Champagne.

This fear is actually unfounded, though.

"[Potential candidates] also perceive that it's more difficult for women than men to raise money," said Jennifer Lawless, the director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University. "The good news is that, in terms of vote totals and fundraising receipts, women fare just as well as men."

Sometimes, it's the fear of personal attacks that discourages potential candidates. State Rep. Helena Moreno (D) cited the nasty tone many of Louisiana's political campaigns take as another deterrent for women entering politics.

"In Louisiana, our political campaigns can get incredibly mean and very ugly and full of lies," she said. "And I think that right there, lately, has really discouraged women to run."

When Moreno ran for office in 2010, her opponent, James Perry, tried to politicize her involvement in a fatal car accident. The Times-Picayune reported that Moreno called the crash "the most haunting [event] of [her] life" and Perry's allegations at the time "despicable."

THE BENEFITS OF WOMEN IN GOVERNMENT

Moreno stressed that once women are elected into office, they are capable of creating great change because of a willingness to work with others.

"Women elected leaders are just so good at compromising and so good at really listening to the issues and I find them to be incredibly compassionate in their work," she said.

Both Stokes and Champagne suggested that with more women serving in the legislative body, progress could be made on a host of issues, including education, health care and the economy. Stokes noted that equal pay for women has been a recurring issue in Louisiana; a 2013 study showed that women in Louisiana make 69 cents for every dollar their male counterparts make, giving the state the second largest gender pay gap in the country.

"On the cause of the pay differential, I do wonder if our averages are hurt merely because so many women take time off to be a mom," she mused.

Moreover, if Louisiana had a greater proportion of women lawmakers, it is possible that recent legislation could have been impacted.

"We know that those sorts of issues such as education, health care, as well as women's reproductive rights, those are things ... that you would expect to see if women were better represented, that the outcome of the legislation would probably be different," Hogan said.

An early childhood education bill that would have consolidated the state's preschool and day care programs recently died in the Legislature. The state rejected an extra $15.8 billion in health-care money that would have come with the federal expansion of Medicaid, a measure that would have insured 400,000 state residents. And last month, a House panel approved a resolution urging state agencies to suspend all grants and reimbursements with Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, which is currently building a new facility in New Orleans.

GETTING MORE WOMEN INVOLVED

In recent years, there has been a push to get more women involved in politics to help close the nationwide gender gap. But in Louisiana, there aren't many organizations working to recruit and support women candidates.

"The political resources for women in Louisiana are limited, and few, if any, are gender-focused," Kelly Dittmar, an assistant research professor at CAWP at Rutgers, said. "Of course, the need for those gender-focused support networks and resources is probably greatest in states like Louisiana where women confront political institutions long dominated by men."

Both the state's Democratic and Republican parties maintain they are working to increase the number of women participating in government. Louisiana's Democratic Party says it is holding grassroots trainings to groom more Democratic women to run for office.

"Rest assured -- building a bigger, more diverse tent with more female leaders is a key part of our vision for the new Louisiana Democratic Party," Louisiana Democratic Party Chairwoman Karen Carter Peterson said.

Stokes, speaking on behalf of the Republican Party, said it is "very willing" to stand behind a qualified female candidate, and continue to appeal to potential candidates in many demographics.

"The state party has been active in attracting people in a diverse cross section," Stokes said. "They actively seek from across gender, age, and racial groups.”

This year, the Louisiana Legislative Women’s Caucus wrote an open letter to the women of Louisiana and launched a public service announcement, both urging them to get involved in the political process.

"I wanted all Louisiana women to know there is a group of dedicated, hardworking, qualified women, who are not sitting idle, but are tirelessly working to help identify, develop and equip current and future women leaders," state Rep. Karen St. Germain (D), the head of the caucus, wrote in her open letter.

The message in the PSA was equally forthright.

"Come on women in Louisiana! We need you to run for public office at every level," state Rep. Patricia Haynes Smith (D) encouraged. Since 2010, the caucus has also awarded $13,000 in scholarships to young women looking to advance their education.

But women in the state may need more encouragement than a public service announcement can provide. A 2009 CAWP study of state legislators found that almost twice as many women as men chose to run for office only after it was suggested to them, while men were far more likely to say the decision to run was theirs alone.

Moreno emphasized that every time she speaks at a youth group or school, she tells the young girls they too could be in her shoes one day.

"I think that encouraging young people is where we need to start," she said. "I think it's difficult sometimes to convince some women who are already older. Even though they'd be good candidates, they've already ruled it out."

Having the support of women already serving in the Legislature is helpful.

Moreno said that she threw her support behind Stokes during her race earlier this year, despite their party differences.

"I thought she was a really great candidate and I just was excited to have another women in the House," Moreno said. "So even though she was a Republican, I was happy to help her." There were no Democrats running in the race.

Stokes also underscored how much she appreciated the help of state Rep. Lenar Whitney (R), who helped her canvass during her candidacy.

"Women, like all candidates, need help raising money and knocking on doors," Stokes said. "But women need that additional role modeling and encouragement that lets them know that it can be successfully accomplished, even while raising a family."

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