Women make huge gains in Oklahoma, rise to leadership posts
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma has traditionally ranked among the states with the fewest women in elected office, but the state made huge gains in the Legislature in November and several of top leadership posts are now held by female lawmakers.
Although the Sooner State lost its first female governor, Mary Fallin, to term limits, it increased the percentage of women in the state Legislature from 13.4 percent in 2017 to 21.5 percent in 2019, one of the sharpest increases in the country.
Democrats, particularly women , appeared to be energized nationally this cycle by the #MeToo movement and their opposition to President Donald Trump, but Oklahoma also had a spring teacher walkout , where thousands of educators and their supporters flooded the Capitol for two weeks of protests over school funding. The teacher protests coincided with Oklahoma’s candidate filing period, prompting dozens of teachers to run for office, and many of them won.
“When things get like they are in Oklahoma, with health indicators being so low, education funding being low, teacher pay being low, and then you combine that with something like the teacher walkout in a mostly female-dominated profession, it was sort of the perfect storm to get more women involved in politics,” said Rep. Emily Virgin, the new House Democratic leader. The number of women in her caucus more than doubled, from five two years ago to 11 this year.
Virgin’s counterpart in the Senate, Democrat Kay Floyd, was elected to lead the Senate Democratic Caucus, marking the first time in state history both minority parties were led by women. The nine-member Democratic caucus in the Senate includes five women, also the first time that a party’s members were majority female.
Women, particularly in urban areas, ran for and won seats at the city, county, state and federal levels. Sarah Pitman, a former teacher and mother of three school-aged children, said she was more politically active this cycle because there were so many strong female candidates.
“I’ve only lived here ten years, but this was unlike any previous election I’ve ever voted in,” said Pitman, who voted for a woman for judge, county commissioner, state House, state Senate and U.S. House, all of whom were victorious. “I’ve never had these kinds of choices.”
Among Republicans, Sen. Kim David became the first female elected majority leader, the No. 2 post in the Senate, and GOP candidates won statewide races for state superintendent and labor commissioner, but David acknowledged there seemed to be more enthusiasm for female candidates on the Democratic side.
“We’re going to have to do a better job of getting out there and recruiting really strong women to run for office, and it’s hard,” said David, R-Porter. “I tried several times this last election cycle to get some women to step up and run, to no avail, but I’m going to keep working on them.”
U.S. Rep. Kendra Horn, a Democrat who leveraged enthusiasm among women to help pull off one of the biggest congressional upsets in the country in November, said the record number of women in Congress is likely to lead to better policy.
“It means we have new opportunities for people who have different experiences and perspectives to be at the table, and I think that’s really important,” said Horn, who previously headed a nonprofit aimed at recruiting and training female candidates. “That’s what makes this country strong is our diverse and unique experiences that can also bring us together.”
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